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Iran’s Ahmadinejad to run for president despite Khamenei warning

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former hardline president, has registered to run in the presidential race next month, defying an edict from the country’s supreme leader not to do so.

Reporters with the Associated Press news agency described watching as stunned election officials processed Ahmadinejad’s paperwork on Wednesday.

The surprise decision will likely upend an election many believed would be won by moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the nuclear deal with world powers.

It also makes Ahmadinejad the most high-profile Iranian politician to defy the wishes of the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters.

Last year, Khamenei took the unusual decision to announce publicly that he had told Ahmadinejad he did not recommend he enter the contest.

“Someone came to see me and considering his own interests and the interests of the country, I told him he should not participate in that matter [elections],” Khamenei was quoted by his official website last year, referring to Ahmadinejad. “I didn’t tell him not to participate, I told him I won’t recommend him participating.”

But in a news conference shortly after submitting his registration, Ahmadinejad described the comments by the supreme leader as “just advice”. There was no immediate reaction from the supreme leader’s office.

He had initially said in a press conference in Tehran last week that he was formally backing his former deputy, Hamid Baghaei, and that he did not plan to run himself.

Ahmadinejad previously served two four-year terms from 2005 to 2013. Under Iranian law, he became eligible to run again after four years out of office, but he remains a polarising figure, even among fellow hardliners.

Iran’s economy suffered under heavy international sanctions during his administration because of western suspicions that Tehran was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

Iranian candidate Ahmadinejad’s ex-adviser, Hamid Baghaei, kisses the former president after registering his candidacy. Photograph: EPA/Rex/Shutterstock

His registration as a candidate is the second surprising announcement in Iran’s presidential race. On Sunday, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric close to Khamenei, announced that he would put his name on the list.

Over the past year, Raisi has been touted as a frontrunner to become Khamenei’s successor, a higher position than that of the president. His bid for presidency has puzzled Iranian political commentators who are asking what his candidacy might mean for Rouhani, who is expected to seek re-election.

Raisi’s decision comes amid concerns about the possible disqualification of Rouhani in the vetting process. The Guardian Council, a body of jurists and clerics who are close to Khamenei, vets all candidates before any elections in Iran, in a process that has been the subject of controversy.

There has been heated debate over whether the council has the constitutional footing to block candidates. In recent years it has blocked many reformists and independents, as well as conservatives, from running in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Although Khamenei controversially sided with Ahmadinejad in a dispute over the 2009 presidential election, which prompted huge protests across the country, the relationship between the two was fraught in the final years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency because of a power struggle at the height of the Islamic Republic.

Despite Khamenei’s advice, Ahmadinejad had been building a campaign in the months leading to the official registration – visiting provinces, becoming more active online and speaking at more occasions. He recently joined Twitter.

More than 120 prospective candidates, including six women and seven clerics, submitted their names on the first day of registration on Tuesday. Registration remains open until Saturday.

The election on 19 May is being seen by many in Iran as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and its ability to improve the country’s sanctions-hobbled economy. Under that deal, Iran agreed to curb its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Associated Press contributed to this report