Iran (AP) — During a celebration last week to mark the Persian new year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did something quietly remarkable: He stood modestly to the side and let his favored aide have the spotlight.
The gesture was far more than just a rare demure moment from the normally grandstanding leader. It was more carefully scripted stagecraft in Ahmadinejad’s longshot efforts to promote the political fortunes of his chief of staff — and in-law — and seek a place for him on the June presidential ballot that will pick Iran’s next president.
In the waning months of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — weakened by years of internal battles with the ruling clerics — there appears no bigger priority than attempting one last surprise. It’s built around rehabilitating the image of Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei and somehow getting him a place among the candidates for the June 14 vote.
To pull it off, Ahmadinejad must do what has eluded him so far: Come out on top in a showdown withSupreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other guardians of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad has been slapped down hard after bold — but ultimately doomed — attempts in recent years to push the influence of his office on policies and decisions reserved for the ruling clerics.
That has left him limping into the end of his eight-year presidency with many allies either jailed or pushed to the political margins. Mashaei is part of the collateral damage.
He’s been discredited as part of a “deviant current” that critics say seeks to undermine Islamic rule in Iran and elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia. The smear campaign has even included rumors that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to cloud Ahmadinejad’s judgment.
The prevailing wisdom is that the backlash has effectively killed Mashaei’s chances for the presidential ballot. The ruling clerics vet all candidates and, the theory follows, they seek a predictable slate of loyalists after dealing with Ahmadinejad’s ambitions and disruptive power plays. In short: Friends of Ahmadinejad need not apply.
Khamenei and others, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, also are hoping to quell domestic political spats that they fear project a sense of instability during critical negotiations with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Yet none of this seems to have discouraged Ahmadinejad, whose son is married to Mashaei’s daughter. Ahmadinejad has been trying to groom Mashaei for years as his potential heir and now appears reluctant to toss his backing behind a less controversial figure.