There was nothing essentially new in the message to Washington from Iran’s president on Sunday: Repeating last week’s statement by the Iranian supreme leader that direct talks cannot happen as long as sanctions remain.
What drew attention was how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected himself into it.
Ahmadinejad told crowds marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that he personally was ready to take part in one-on-one dialogue with the U.S. if Western economic pressures were eased. Even in the twilight of his presidency, Ahmadinejad’s political ego remains as intact as ever — suggesting both a feisty prelude to June elections and efforts by Ahmadinejad to seek the spotlight after his second and final term.
While he was careful not to contradict Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the offer to represent Iran in possible future dialogue — whether real or rhetorical — was an indirect slap and suggests no easing of a political feud between Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics. The supreme leader, not the president, oversees all critical matters of state, including picking envoys for international talks and setting policy toward Washington.
Iran’s political skirmishes pose no direct threat to the ruling system, but have become so much of a distraction that Khamenei has made a rare appeal for all sides to lower the tensions.
It’s gone widely unheeded. Ahmadinejad has even warned against attempts to “engineer” the June elections. It’s a reference to the powerful Revolutionary Guard and its plans to take an active role in the campaigning, but also a paradoxical swipe since Ahmadinejad’s re-election four years ago touched off enormous chaos over claims of vote rigging.
By most reckoning, Ahmadinejad should be limping into his final months.
His political capital has been sharply drained in a doomed bid to challenge Khamenei as the sole gatekeeper for all key policies and decisions. Key allies have been either arrested or politically neutralized over nearly two years. Last week, Ahmadinejad was publicly rebuked in parliament after trying to disgrace Speaker Ali Larijani — a longtime rival — with a purportedly secret videotape allegedly exposing corruption within the Larijani clan.
“Very ugly,” said Ahmadinejad after being lectured by Larijani about political ethics and then curtly dismissed from the chamber.
Yet every time Ahmadinejad has been rattled, he’s managed to regain his footing.
His resilience will now encounter even tougher tests. Khamenei and the ruling theocracy are expected to block Ahmadinejad’s protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from being on the June 14 ballot to pick his successor. This means that Ahmadinejad — with less to lose — may fight harder for political relevance in the coming months and lash back stronger at his critics.
At the same time, it appears likely that Ahmadinejad will try to position himself for some kind of political influence after his leaves office. He has given few hints of his post-presidency incarnation, however.