Published July 15, 2013
| Associated Press
TEHRAN, Iran – Mock condolences arriving by text message in Iran announce the political "death" of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Memorial services, the joke continues, are planned at the United Nations in tribute to his swaggering style each year in New York.
The satire may bring smirks from the many foes Ahmadinejad has racked up over eight years in office, stemming from several high-profile feuds with the ruling clerics and one disputed re-election. But no one is truly counting Ahmadinejad out of Iran's political future, which could face some bumpy times as he decides his next moves and his opponents plot possible payback.
One way or another, the combative and polarizing aura of the soon-to-be former president is not going to dissipate once his centrist successor, Hasan Rouhani, is sworn in Aug. 4.
Ahmadinejad has remained evasive on his post-presidential plans. Speculation, however, is fanning out in several directions, including media boss and freelance statesman. A trip to Iraq this week — one of his last major moments in the spotlight as president — will be watched closely for clues on his next moves.
"The only thing that's certain at this point is that Ahmadinejad and his team are just not going to pack up and go away," said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. "Iran's political system has to be prepared for that."
This is what makes Ahmadinejad's departure such a potential shock to Iran's system.
Since turbulent shakeouts immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's other former presidents have remained rooted in the system. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who left the presidency in 1989, rose to become supreme leader. His successor, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, took posts within the ruling clerics. Even reformist Mohammad Khatami was careful not to fight back too hard over sweeping crackdowns on the opposition and some of the freedoms he helped engineer.
But Ahmadinejad is the kind of high-profile figure Iran has rarely seen before: He has essentially become a political orphan.
The ruling establishment holds a powerful grudge over his maverick-style challenges to Khamenei's authority to set policies and pick key Cabinet posts, which left Ahmadinejad severely weakened in recent years. Liberals long ago rejected Ahmadinejad's firebrand ways, which included anti-Israeli diatribes and questions over the Holocaust that also hammered his image in the West. And many former conservative backers drifted away when it became a loyalty test or either Ahmadinejad or the supreme leader.
This leaves Ahmadinejad with a small cadre of allies and pockets of supporters around the country — mainly poor and rural Iranians grateful for his government's monthly handouts.
How he may leverage this remaining clout "is very difficult to predict," said Ali Bigdeli, a professor in international relations in Tehran's Beheshti University.
One intriguing hint was given last week by his closest aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who said it was "likely" Ahmadinejad could launch a media outlet.
"We are not considering formation of a political party," said Mashaei, who was barred by the ruling clerics from the ballot in June's election as part of the high-level fallout against Ahmadinejad. "But the media can be effective. The society needs media."
He gave no other clues, but any media venture would certainly meet stiff resistance from the ruling theocracy and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which hold influence over a host of news services, TV stations and newspapers.
"Ahmadinejad is very interested remaining in the media spotlight," said Hamid Reza Shokouhi, editor of the pro-reform Mardomsalari daily. "He will use it as a tool to return him or any close ally to power."
Some pro-Ahmadinejad sources also have floated the idea he would establish an aid-giving foundation known as "Bahar," or "Spring," as a way to maintain his populist image and keep alive options for a comeback bid in 2017. Iran's presidents must leave office after two consecutive terms, but it's possible to return after a political hiatus — as Rafsanjani tried in 2005 in his surprise loss to Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has not slowed down even as Rouhani prepares to take over. He has kept up a steady pace of speeches, ribbon-cuttings and trips. It suggests he wants to keep his statesman image sharp for possible independent outreach and attempts at keeping a voice in Iranian affairs.
On Thursday, Ahmadinejad plans to begin a two-day trip to neighboring Iraq, where Shiite power Iran carries important influence with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He also is scheduled to visit the Shiite religious center of Najaf, an important power base and source of potential funds for Ahmadinejad.
Yet other challenges await Ahmadinejad once he leaves office.
In early June, a criminal court summoned Ahmadinejad over a lawsuit filed by the country's parliament speaker and a parliamentary committee. There have been no further details, but Ahmadinejad and the speaker, Ali Larijani, have waged political feuds for years. In February, Ahmadinejad released a barely audible video that purported to show discussion over bribes that included Larijani's brother.
Behrouz Shojaei, a columnist in several pro-reform newspapers, believes more legal salvos over his presidency may come as "indirect punishment" for battling the supreme leader.
"However much Ahmadinejad may resist, though, there is the reality that he will no longer be president and the world's attention will shift to his successor," said the professor, Nafisi. "It began happening the moment Rouhani was elected."
When Ahmadinejad returned earlier this month from a trip to Moscow, only a small group of supporters came to Tehran's airport to welcome him. In the past, hundreds of people often crowded similar arrivals home.
Meanwhile, Rouhani has been embraced by Iran's fast-moving street culture in ways never open to Ahmadinejad.
The phrase "Rouhani, mochakerim," or "Thank you, Rouhani," has become a catchall term for hope, achievements and complaints about Iran's sanctions-shattered economy. It's also a backhanded way for Ahmadinejad's opponents to bid him goodbye.
The quip first surfaced just days after the June 14 election when Iran's soccer team qualified for the 2014 World Cup after beating South Korea. It then went viral on Farsi websites.
This month, a hip-hop audio clip carried the refrain "Rouhani, mochakerim." The Tehran weekly, Hamshahri Javan, printed many of the Internet messages in graffiti style on its front page. One pointed out the major economic challenges ahead: "Inflation declined to zero, Rouhani, mochakerim." On Sunday, Iran's Central Bank put the inflation rate at nearly 36 percent.
Later, one blog post tried to put some perspective on the transition from Ahmadinejad to Rouhani.
"We ask Rouhani to explain to the people that he is a president," it said, "not Harry Potter."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.