Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s final term in office is just months from completion, with a June election setting the stage for his leaving office in August. If he gets his way, his successor will be his chief of staff, and former Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Which is an internal battle in Iran with a long history. Mashaei was appointed as Vice President in 2009, but was forced to resign shortly thereafter facing objections from Ayatolalh Ali Khamenei, the nation’s Supreme Leader.
This set the stage for years of battles between Ahmadinejad and religious hardliners, who saw his cabinet as full of cronies with dubious religious ties. Mashaei’s own aide, and Ahmadinejad’s personal prayer leader, was even arrested on a charge of “sorcery” in 2011 by religious police based on allegations of religious deviationism.
At the core of all of this is the Ahmadinejad Administration’s own tendency toward secularism, and Mashaei exemplifies this, publicly complaining in recent talks that clerics are taking too big a role in Iranian politics, and that the constitution should be changed to delineate a clear separation of mosque and state.
Such comments go well beyond controversial in Iran, officially a theocracy: they are downright revolutionary. Ahmadinejad’s ability to even survive to the end of his last term after openly clashing with Khamenei is a surprise to many, but he seems set to double down with his backing for Mashaei and is trying to make a lasting change to Iran’s system of government.
Whether this will sell to voters is unclear. Mashaei is relatively unknown beyond his personal ties to Ahmadinejad, who isn’t that popular to begin with. Khamenei legally doesn’t even have to approve any candidate he sees as a threat, but it seems unlikely that he would reject Mashaei outright, as it would likely be safer for the long run to just let him run and lose, which if Khamenei expressed displeasure with him he almost surely would.