Last month, a group of former cabinet ministers, former members of parliament and other former officials close to Iran’s former controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced the formation of a party called Yekta, meaning Unique, but also an acronym for ‘Comrades for the Effectiveness and Transformation of Islamic Iran’ in Persian.
Iran’s Ministry of Interior, controlled by President Hassan Rouhani’s camp and the moderates who are fierce opponents of Ahmadinejad’s camp, declared the formation of Yekta “illegal” unless the party gets permission from and registers with the ministry.
However, founders of Yekta maintained that their group was not a formal party. They asserted that Yekta was a front that pursued a specific discourse and sought “to impact all the [political] issues of the country”. According to Hamid Reza Haji Babaie, former minister of education under Ahmadinejad and temporary spokesman of Yekta, the front’s purpose is “rooted in the discourse of Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] and the Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] which is the duty of all who believe in the Guardianship of the Jurist to follow”.
Members of Yekta who, according to their opponents, “are driving in the dark with their headlights off”, do not want to incite anyone at this point. They realise that strong sensitivities remain against Ahmadinejad, mainly among the middle class in large cities. Publicly, they seek to avoid associations with Ahmadinejad, fearing that early revelation of such a connection may have dire political consequences.
The conclusion of Ahmadinejad’s second term in 2013 left Iran economically and politically bankrupt. Furthermore, the country’s domestic political environment was immensely securitised. The landslide victory of Rouhani, one of the leading members of the moderate camp in 2013, left observers with the impression that Ahmadinejad’s return would be unimaginable in the near future. Apparently, Ahmadinejad himself is not convinced of this.
Heshmatollah Falahat Pisheh, a former member of the parliament and renowned Iranian political analyst, alluding to the formation of Yekta, recently said that Ahmadinejad has crafted a mechanism to become active in Iran’s politics. “Undoubtedly, Ahmadinejad has plans to return as president,” he asserted. Falahat Pisheh added, “Some of Ahmadinejad’s advisers posit that by gaining a popular base through promotion of a populist agenda, he could attract the support of some Principalist [conservative] factions, representing a significant political shift [in Iran].”
Ahmadinejad left office on bad terms with many Principalists. Interestingly, however, the head of one Principalist faction in parliament, Gulam Ali Haddad Adel, a close ally of Ayatollah Khamenei (Haddad Adel’s daughter married Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Ayatollah Khamenei), now says that the Yekta can help unite the Principalists.
Ahmadinejad rose to power in 2005 almost out of nowhere. His rise was primarily attributed to two factors: First, his widespread support from the Principalists and their grassroots supporters in opposition to moderates/reformists. Second, middle class urbanites that were attracted to his slogans about social and economic justice, as well as war against corruption and economic monopoly.
Ahmadinejad was never a Principalist, hardliner, conservative or revolutionary. His agenda was to grab power exclusively and to stay in power. He was a perfect Machiavellian who possessed an endless thirst for power.
In pursuit of his goal, he embarked on a multi-dimensional plan. Domestically, he would attack moderates and reformists, thus seeking to eliminate his most threatening rivals. At the same time, he bought the support of hardliners and the Supreme Leader who, although unlike hardliners does not consider talks with the Americans a red line, does seek a more robust foreign policy and also opposes Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami’s conciliatory foreign policy.
Internationally, Ahmadinejad pursued a dual approach towards foreign policy. He publicly attacked the US and Israel to gain popularity within Iran’s conservative circles and also outside Iran, within the Islamic world. He sought political clout in the Islamic world so that America could not ignore him. At the same time, he made overt but veiled suggestions towards rapprochement. Covertly, he would make more significant efforts towards rapprochement with the US.
The logic behind this strategy was that if he covertly succeeded in striking a deal with the United States, he would then proclaim success publicly. Following the revelation, he would launch a propaganda campaign claiming that the deal was due to his courageous and aggressive stance, making him a national hero who was able to bring America to its knees.
According to Barbara Slavin, journalist and Iran expert, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice told her in early 2006: “We were getting pinged in a lot of places, from the United Nations, to Baghdad and the Afghan capital, Kabul, with messages saying the Iranians wanted to talk.”
In a conciliatory effort unprecedented since the Islamic republic’s formation, Ahmadinejad wrote a congratulatory letter to US President Barack Obama, which went unanswered. He also offered to meet Obama in his interview with Larry King in 2010. As explained in the book co-written by this author, while he publicly attacked the US, a former US official said: “I have met Mashaei [Ahmadinejad’s confidante] eight times seeking an opening to talks and relations between Iran and the US.”
Ahmadinejad was hopeful, until the very end of his presidency, that he could establish strong, grassroots support by bringing the US-Iran conflict to closure and securing an end to sanctions against Iran. Responding to the question of how Ahmadinejad could regain popular support, Pisheh contends: “By invoking justice and working on the low-income portion of Iran’s society, especially at a time when people’s living and economic hardships are not yet resolved.”
There is a hidden factor in this argument and that is the fate of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany). If the talks succeed, after years of isolation, the reasonable easing or removal of sanctions will lay the foundation of an economic boom in the aftermath of a nuclear deal. Governments, industrial giants, entrepreneurs, traders and marketers are eying a wealth of opportunities in Iran’s huge and untapped frontier market. Most of the hotels in Tehran are already fully booked until the end of this year.
In such an eventuality, Ahmadinejad and his team are unlikely to have any chance of success by promoting a populist campaign — first intending to grab seats in the March 2016 parliamentary elections and then in the 2017 presidential election.
A breakdown in talks, however, will most likely result in even stiffer sanctions that have already ravaged the Iranian economy. Such a failure may present Yekta with a golden opportunity to present and campaign on an egalitarian economic platform, as opposed to Rouhani and his team’s non-egalitarian, neo-liberal economic agenda.
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada.