Iranian ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registers for June 28 election

Khamenei ‘right-hand man’ Vahid Haghanian, who’s under US sanctions, also among candidates awaiting hardline Guardian Council’s approval to vie in race called after Raisi’s death

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seen after registering his candidacy for Iran's upcoming presidential election in Tehran, June 2, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seen after registering his candidacy for Iran's upcoming presidential election in Tehran, June 2, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Iran’s firebrand, Holocaust-denying former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered Sunday as a possible candidate for the presidential election, according to Associated Press reporters in Tehran, seeking to regain the country’s top political position after a helicopter crash killed the nation’s president.

The populist former leader’s registration puts pressure on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In office, Ahmadinejad openly challenged the 85-year-old cleric, and his attempt to run in 2021 was barred by authorities.

But Ahmadinejad remains popular among the poor for his populist efforts and home-building programs. Since leaving office, he’s raised his profile via social media and written widely publicized letters to world leaders. He’s also criticized government corruption, though his own administration faced graft allegations and two of his former vice presidents were jailed.

Khamenei warned Ahmadinejad in 2017 that his standing for office again would be a “polarized situation” that would be “harmful for the county.” Khamenei said nothing during Ahmadinejad’s 2021 attempt, when his candidacy was rejected by the 12-member Guardian Council, a panel of clerics and jurists ultimately overseen by Khamenei.

An election is planned June 28 to replace Khamenei’s hard-line protégé president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May along with seven other people.

A senior figure in Khamenei’s inner circle has also registered for the June 28 election.


File – Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) gives his official seal of approval during the swearing in ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani (R), as the supreme leader’s close adviser Vahid Haghanian (C) looks on, in Tehran, August 3, 2017. (HO / Iranian Supreme Leader’s Website / AFP)

Ahmadinejad previously served two four-year terms from 2005 to 2013, becoming a caricature of Western perceptions of the Islamic Republic’s worst attributes by questioning the Holocaust, insisting Iran had no gay or lesbian citizens and hinting Iran could build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

Under Iranian law, Ahmadinejad became eligible to run again after four years out of office, but he remains a polarizing figure even among fellow hardliners. His disputed reelection in 2009 sparked massive “Green Movement” protests and a sweeping crackdown in which thousands of people were detained and dozens were killed.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a self-styled “Parliament of the Iranian Resistance,” said that the 2009 crackdown was led by Vahid Haghanian, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council, along with the supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei.

File – Iranian opposition supporters chant slogans in support of hardline then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi (portrait), as they protest during a rally marking Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran, September 18, 2009. (Atta Kenare / AFP)

Haghanian, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council who is under sanctions from the United States, also registered as a presidential candidate on Saturday, state media reported.

NCRI said Haghanian is allied with the younger Khamenei, whose candidacy to replace his father has been said to be boosted by the demise of Raisi, who was said to have been preferred by the supreme leader.

Little information has been made public about Haghanian’s career in the Guards, the ideological arm of Iran’s armed forces. The NCRI reported that Haghanian had been commander of Iran’s Navy intelligence during the Iran-Iraq war, before serving as a commander in the IRGC’s elite Quds force for four years.

Like late president Raisi, Haghanian has been under US sanctions since November 2019 for his role in Ayatollah Khamenei’s “inner circle responsible for advancing the regime’s domestic and foreign oppression.”

The US Treasury Department directive called Haghanian the supreme leader’s “right-hand man.” According to the NCRI, Haghanian’s acquaintance with Khamenei dates back to the early days of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

People participate in a funeral procession alongside a truck carrying the coffins of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and his seven aides in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan province, on May 21, 2024. (Ata Dadashi / Fars News Agency / AFP)

However, the London-based Iran International, a Persian-language news network considered a terror group by the Islamic Republic, said that a noticeable decrease in Haghanian’s public appearances alongside Khamenei in recent years has sparked speculation that the former IRGC officer no longer carries so much weight in Iran’s halls of power.

Iran International quoted Haghanian as saying in a speech announcing his candidacy: “I have never been and will never be a member or adherent to the principles of any factions, but I have and will continue to cooperate and engage with all of them.”

Candidate registration opened on Thursday and closes on Monday. An election official told reporters on Saturday that 17 hopefuls had signed up thus far. They included moderate ex-parliament speaker Ali Larijani, reformist former central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati and ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili gives a press conference after registering his candidacy during the first day of Iranian presidential election registration at the interior ministry in Tehran, May 30 2024. (AFP)

In the latest challenge to a ban on women running for president, conservative former lawmaker Zohreh Elahian also registered on Saturday, telling reporters her motto would be “A healthy government, a healthy economy and a healthy society”.

The Guardian Council has ruled in earlier elections that Iran’s Islamic laws prevent a woman from becoming president.

Hardliner Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani and reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian have also registered.

The Guardian Council will announce the final list of candidates on June 11 after it has completed its vetting procedures.

The council disqualified several reformist and moderate candidates from the last presidential election in 2021, including Ahmadinejad and former speaker Larijani.

Former Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani registers at the elections registration office in Tehran on May 31, 2024. (AFP)

Moderate politicians have accused the 12-member Guardian Council of disqualifying non-hardline candidates, who are expected to dominate the race.

However, a lack of choice on the ballot, combined with rising discontent over an array of political, social and economic crises, could reduce turnout and thus the legitimacy of Iran’s theocratic system of government.

Within Iran’s complex mix of clerical rulers and elected officials, Khamenei has the final say on all state matters such as nuclear and foreign policies. But the elected president will be in charge of tackling worsening economic hardship.

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