Questions remain over whether or not Mashaei could be cleared to run by the conservative bodies that have the power to vet candidates. If he does, many observers say his candidacy would represent a fresh challenge to the ruling clergy, a trend that began during Ahmadinejad’s current term.
“The rules of the game have been known and largely followed for three decades, and the cutthroat nature of Iranian politics is now being shaped by the Ahmadinejad camp repeatedly pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable by the Islamic republic’s own standards,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington.
Mashaei served briefly as Iran’s vice president in 2009, when Ahmadinejad, showing defiance in response to Khamenei’s decree, appointed Mashaei as his chief of staff. He now represents Iran as head of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of about 120 countries whose presidency rotates among its members.
Praise for the U.S.
Regarded as a pragmatist, Mashaei has cast himself as a nationalist and a moderate who is open to expanding cooperation with Iran’s longtime foes. In a 2008 speech that infuriated conservatives, he declared that “no nation in the world is our enemy,’’ and he praised the United States as “one of the great nations of the world.’’
For the ideologically committed members of the Islamic republic’s political establishment, such statements are considered so radical as to pose a risk to the theocracy that has governed Iran since the revolution of 1979. Opponents have taken to referring to Mashaei and others among Ahmadinejad’s advisers as a “deviant current,” and some have accused the men of sorcery and other illicit activities.
But Mashaei has gained popularity among Iranian expatriates who see him as presenting Iran as open for business.
As a two-term president, Ahmadinejad is barred by law from seeking reelection. He has clashed sharply over the past two years with the Khamenei camp, and he has made no secret of his desire to see an ally elected as his successor.
If Mashaei’s candidacy is approved, he could attract support from Ahmadinejad’s base in the working class, many of whom are veterans of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. He could also win support among Iranian nationalists who believe that identity trumps their religious one, a potentially large bloc of voters.
Other analysts believe his popularity is overblown. “I do not think Mashaei has enough support to win,’’ Farideh Farhi, an Iran analyst on the political science faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa said in an e-mail. “He is not as well-known as everyone thinks outside of Tehran, and his Iran-centered turns are not seen as genuine by urban middle classes.”