Friday , 2 June 2023

What’s behind Ahmadinejad’s awkward silence on Iran’s protests?

Al-Monitor – The majority of Iran’s popular political figures, celebrities and sports icons have criticized the state violence against the ongoing wave of protests that began in September. But others loyal to the government have firmly stood by their leaders. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s silence since the beginning of the uprising on Sept. 16 is very curious, exposing his possible intentions to remain an establishment loyalist rather than falling out of grace with the ruling clerics. 

After stepping down in 2013, Ahmadinejad began stepping cautiously forward to carve out a new public image for himself — one that is characterized by liberal attitudes, a conciliatory foreign policy and tolerant views on women’s rights. His eight years as president plunged Iran into unprecedented isolation and foisted an extended period of social and cultural downturn when the government banned newspapers, censorship was on the ascent and internet restrictions were tightened.  

It was under Ahmadinejad’s watch that Facebook and Twitter were blocked; several foreign news agencies and broadcasters, such as Reuters, BBC World and Al-Arabiya, had their bureaus in Tehran shuttered; and top pro-reform figures and journalists were put on sham trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms following the incumbent’s disputed reelection in 2009.

Most importantly, the notorious division of Iran’s law enforcement known as the morality police, which is responsible for Mahsa Amini’s death, debuted upon Ahmadinejad’s instruction in 2006. He dragged the country into frequent diplomatic imbroglios and was never invited to an official or state visit to any European country.  

Walkouts at his speeches at UN events and other international forums became recurrent, and world leaders — even from countries traditionally intimate with Iran — rebuffed him. In 2012, then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff refused to grant a meeting to him after he arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Rio+20 summit. Even his stalwarts couldn’t ignore the humiliation. 

One of the most colossal fiascos he was involved in was the Sept. 24, 2007, speech he gave at Columbia University in New York City, when he was repeatedly booed and laughed at by the students and others in attendance. The introductory remarks of the university president, Lee Bollinger, represented a public indictment of the hard-line leader. In reference to Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, Bollinger said he was “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”  

Since retirement, the profoundly divisive figure has been toiling away at sidelining his legacy as an inflammatory speaker with uncompromising ideologies on civil rights and foreign policy, in an apparent bid to appeal to the urban, educated middle class, probably weighing his chances of running for office again and relying on the votes of disillusioned Iranians. 

By giving interviews to media organizations that are overtly inimical to the Islamic Republic, such as the Persian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or Independent Persian, and directing thinly veiled criticisms at the security apparatus, Ahmadinejad has sought to project himself as a liberal-minded politician who counters the government’s orthodoxies and religious fundamentalism.  

His use of social media to reach out to the American public, heaping praise on NBA stars and other towering figures of the US popular culture such as Angelina Jolie, Larry King and Malcolm X, was particularly contentious given his track record of years of hostile verbiage against the United States. But his fans appreciated what they said was his goodwill gesture aimed at mending fences with an America he long despised.  

In a November 2020 interview with Mehdi Nasiri, a conservative journalist and commentator, Ahmadinejad challenged the concept of compulsory hijab. “If we introduce a religion that opposes the intrinsic demands of the human beings, where is the position of such a religion? What will be its fate? Is it going to be any different from dictatorship?” he said. 

It is difficult to say whether Ahmadinejad has genuinely changed and abandoned his extreme world views given that his integrity and honesty were always disputed. His critics argue he easily twists words to appear justified and as such is not a reliable leader. But his refusal to comment on the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, while he had most recently criticized the Islamic Republic for siding with Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, signals his future plans and the role he wants to define for himself in the Islamic Republic power hierarchy. 

Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Al-Monitor Ahmadinejad is trying to appropriate the moderate mantle but at the same time is aware that he cannot be a rebel to the establishment. 

“With regards to the protests, Ahmadinejad is in a difficult spot. He wants to leverage the current situation but realizes his constraints. Those protesting will not support him because of his legacy. So why go out on a limb?” Bokhari said. 

“Then the intra-regime fault lines are more acute than before given the ongoing crisis, which could also explain Ahmednejad’s silence. I suspect he is watching the situation closely and will jump into the fray when the risks of doing so are substantially lower than the potential rewards,” he added. 

Other experts say Ahmadinejad doesn’t want to lose his standing as an establishment confidante by sympathizing with the protesters, which will inevitably draw the ire of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who unconditionally supported his presidency. 

“I think that many Iranian leaders once out of power suddenly discover the benefits of human rights in various forms. I am not convinced that the vast majority of people believe this is anything more than opportunism, and Ahmadinejad’s recent silence speaks volumes,” said Ali Ansari, professor in Middle East modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

“I suspect he realizes that the situation is serious enough now to permit political theater of the sort he indulges in and which the establishment has indulged him. If he speaks out of turn now, the consequences for him could be serious,” he told Al-Monitor. 

Ahmadinejad tried to run for the presidency in 2021 and was disqualified by the Guardian Council. But this doesn’t mean he has abandoned his ambitions or ruled out another bid for presidency in 2025. As such, glossing over the protests and imparting a message of loyalty to the leadership that catapulted him to power seem to be the most prudent strategy he can adopt.