Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei has announced that it would not “be in the best interest of the country” for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to seek a third presidential term. Ahmadinejad, infamously known for fixing the 2009 Iranian Presidential election, has taken the advice of the Supreme Leader, telling the Iranian people that he would not participate in the 2017 cycle. In stark contrast to his support for Ahmadinejad’s two other presidential bids, Khamenei has been quoted saying that Ahmadinejad’s campaign would create “bipolar opposites and divisions within the country.” Much of Ahmadinejad’s presidency was marked by division in Iran. The Green Movement in 2009 saw thousands of Iranians taking to the streets in protest and police crackdowns on dissidents during the most intense clashes the country has seen since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iranian moderates’ ability to mobilize thousands of protesters around Tehran and other Iranian cities shows how powerful they are, and, if given a reason, they have promised to continue their protests against hardliners. A repeat of 2009, which could be triggered by a successful Ahmadinejad campaign, would pose an existential threat to the regime’s legitimacy and Khamenei’s power.
During Ahmadinejad’s initial political rise in 2005, he had the support of the Supreme Leader. After the administration of Mohammad Khatami, a leftist by Iranian standards, the conservative Khamenei was ready to push the presidency back in a right-wing direction, and Ahmadinejad seemed like the right candidate to lead that shift. After Ahmadinejad’s first election, he even kissed Khamenei’s shoulder as a sign of loyalty and submission to his ultimate authority. Without Khamenei’s support, many speculate that Ahmadinejad would not have risen to prominence, and as a result, Ahmadinejad was willing to lead Iran back toward a conservative platform at the request of his benefactor. Though the two had disagreements as early as 2008, Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad’s reelection, mentioning that he “sees Ahmadinejad as president in the next 5 years” before the 2009 election.
Khamenei has asserted his political dominance over Ahmadinejad throughout the course of the latter’s presidency, as was evident when Khamenei reinstated a cabinet minister whom Ahmadinejad had fired in 2011. While Ahmadinejad has been approved to run for high political office by the Guardian Council, without the blessing of the Supreme Leader, it would normally be nearly impossible for a candidate with such conservative stances to win the presidency. The more liberal majority of the Iranian population has preferred more moderate candidates in the past. Rouhani, who is expected to seek office in 2017, is widely favored as a moderate alternative to the conservative Ahmadinejad. With Ahmadinejad out of the race, Khamenei may have handed another term to Iranian moderates.
Khamenei, who has been extremely vocal in his opposition to opening up relations with the West, has just made Rouhani’s campaign—which has a foreign policy message centered around the benefits of the nuclear deal—much easier. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have developed close personal and political ties with Western leaders where Ahmadinejad would not think to negotiate with countries such as the United States. Khamenei seems to recognize that the Iranian people want their country to have the type of role in the world in which Iran is friendlier towards the West. Ahmadinejad, however, does not. The former president has been quoted saying that the United States government orchestrated 9/11, that the Holocaust is a myth perpetuated by Western countries, and that Iran does not have homosexuals. While Khamenei was able to put up with these outlandish statements in the past, he cannot continue to support Ahmadinejad after the liberalizing policies of Rouhani’s administration. Although it is unclear whether Khamenei has any choice in the matter, Iran is liberalizing, and his recent spurn of Ahmadinejad has only expedited this transition.