M. K. Bhadrakumar |
The ‘known unknown’ in the fateful decision handed down on Thursday by Iran’s Guardian Council on the approved list of candidates for the forthcoming presidential election on May 19 was as regards the candidacy of former president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. That was for three main reasons. First, he is a colorful personality who occupies a unique spot in Iran’s political spectrum, which qualifies to be called ‘leftist’. Iran’s politics needs such a platform, given the nature of its problems of development.
Ahmedinejad was a rare ‘non-cleric’ president. Highly educated, intelligent, articulate and a self-confident intellectual credited with a progressive outlook, he showed that a politician can have mass appeal in Iran sans the patronage of the religious establishment.
A contestation between the Conservative Right and the Moderate Right detracts from the authenticity of the electoral arena. The paradox is that while there is a faction known as ‘reformists’ in Iran, it serves the same class interests as the conservative religious establishment. The 1978 revolution had leftist moorings, given its genesis as a popular democracy movement, but ended with the establishment of the world’s first Islamic state. And in a bitter struggle within the revolution, progressives got eliminated. It remains a hugely controversial chapter in Iran’s modern history and keeps popping up every now and then, reopening old wounds.
Second, Ahmedinejad was a rare ‘non-cleric’ president. Highly educated, intelligent, articulate and a self-confident intellectual credited with a progressive outlook, he showed that a politician can have mass appeal in Iran sans the patronage of the religious establishment. Although deeply religious in his private beliefs and Spartan lifestyle, he lighted up a potential path in Iran’s evolution as a practicing democracy that lay unexplored. Indeed, Iran’s progress as a modern state stands to gain if the religious establishment also becomes accountable to the people – not only to god. Did the religious establishment feel challenged by him? It seems so.
Six candidates have been short-listed for the upcoming elections, but no official reason has been given. And there is no higher appeal, either.
Third, in world politics today, we need a Bolivarian leader and therefore if there is no Ahmedinejad, it is a poorer world. Someone should speak up when a mother of all bombs is dropped on a hapless nation which is already at the end of its tether after years of occupation and ransacking and savagery, or when a color revolution is being insidiously fostered in faraway Venezuela. Multipolarity in world politics cannot be a fig-leaf for a concert of big powers to cover their back side.
Ahmedinejad was genuinely an internationalist who dared to punch above his weight and almost got away with it. The world needs him in the era of Donald Trump. The alternative is to settle for Kim Jong Un, which is of course bizarre.
The wisdom of Iran’s Guardian Council
However, in its wisdom, Iran’s Guardian Council has debarred Ahmedinejad from contesting next month’s election. Six candidates have been short-listed, but no official reason has been given. And there is no higher appeal, either.
If an analogy is drawn from Indian politics, it was as if LK Advani had projected himself as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP in the run-up to the 2014 poll, even after figuring out the RSS’s game plan.
What explains it? To be sure, there will be myriad conspiracy theories. To my mind, it is a highly political decision that the Guardian Council took. Some time back, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had reportedly asked Ahmadinejad not to put his name forward for this year’s election, so as to avoid “polarizing” the country. But the latter displayed strategic defiance. If so, it was a hopeless act.
If an analogy is drawn from Indian politics, it was as if LK Advani had projected himself as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP in the run-up to the 2014 poll, even after figuring out the RSS’s game plan. Advani showed prudence, while Ahmedinejad needed to be restrained. But then, that is also what makes Ahmedinejad adorable – to fight and lose rather than to shy away.
It is an “in-house” affair, with a level playing field available for two conformist figures of the religious establishment – one far-right and the other moderate-reformist – testing their popularity.
Ahmedinejad’s exit improves the chances of re-election for President Hassan Rouhani, whose performance on the economic front has been dismal with high unemployment (12.5%) despite the impressive 6.6% growth rate. Rouhani’s main opponent is likely to be the conservative cleric with a background in the judiciary (and Iran’s alleged extra-judicial killings) who heads the prestigious and powerful (and incredibly wealthy) religious foundation known as Astan Quds Razavi with responsibility for overseeing the country’s holiest Shia shrine in the city of Mashhad — Ebrahim Raisi.
It is an “in-house” affair, with a level playing field available for two conformist figures of the religious establishment – one far-right and the other moderate-reformist – testing their popularity. For neither, of course, this is the end of the road in their career. Ahmedinejad would have given an existential dimension to the election, and elevated it as the occasion for a great battle of ideas and roads taken and not taken. Put differently, Iran’s establishment is opting for cautious policies.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.