Few expected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to fade into the political twilight when he packed up his things at the Iranian president’s office in 2013.
He’s too young. Too ambitious. Too comfortably combative.
He may now be plotting the trajectory of his return one click at a time. Ahmadinejad on Sunday unveiled a Web site and Instagram account that have added fresh fodder to speculation that Iran -- and the world -- have not seen the last of the windbreaker-wearing, Holocaust-questioning, West-bashing two-time president.
The site, ahmadinejad.ir, includes the head-scratching slogan "We will come soon" and an image of a smiling Ahmadinejad holding up his right hand in a mix of friendly wave and campaign-style pomp.
There’s no hint of any direct political aims. But the Web page is deeply political.
It includes a meandering manifesto denouncing January’s terrorist attacks in Paris, but also zinging “imperialistic” -- meaning American -- policies in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. In a “state of the nation” section, he criticizes last month’s conviction of one of his former vice presidents, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, on corruption charges. But he tries to build some daylight by insisting the allegations happened before Rahimi joined his administration.
“Ahmadinejad is not going to leave the scene,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Herndon. “But I don’t think he’s clear yet on his next move. This is a way to try to test some political traction and see where it goes.”
That might not be so easy.
Ahmadinejad left on very sour terms with the country’s ruling clerics, who control all the important political levers. That includes the ability to decide which candidates can even make the ballot.
The end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency was dominated by a messy – and ultimately unwinnable – confrontation with the all-powerful theocrats. It began with Ahmadinejad trying to challenge the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to set policies and pick key cabinet posts.
It then deteriorated into target practice against Ahmadinejad’s inner circle. Authorities staged a wave of arrests and purges. Hard-line media smeared Ahmadinejad's closest confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, deriding him as leader of a "deviant current" that sought to undermine Islamic rule. Some critics even claimed that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to cloud Ahmadinejad's judgment.
The attacks were too much for even Ahmadinejad loyalists, who were forced to choose between the entrenched ruling establishment or their politically wounded president. Many made the pragmatic decision and turned their back on Ahmadinejad.
And Iran’s political climate has evolved since Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, took office in August 2013. Talks over ways to monitor Tehran’s nuclear program have moved ahead – with the possibility of the framework of a deal in the coming months.
Rouhani, meanwhile, has worked hard to lower the political temperature with measured diplomacy toward the West and its allies – in contrast to Ahmadinejad’s provocative ways that included saying the extent of the Holocaust is still a subject of historical debate.
“So Ahmadinejad, in many ways, has to figure out his consistency and how much of it he has left,” said Nafisi.
The next chance for that would be elections for Iran’s parliament next year. It’s unlikely that the 58-year-old Ahmadinejad would be content as just another lone lawmaker in the crowd. The more likely scenario – if he runs at all – would be as head of a new conservative political movement.
And that could be the launch pad for the bigger prize: Another run at the presidency -- directly or as a political mentor. Iran’s constitution has a two-term limit for the president but does not exclude a comeback bid.
One former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, tried it in 2005 but lost to the then-upstart Ahmadinejad, who was mayor of Tehran. Since then, the ruling clerics have been unfriendly to having a former president seek to reclaim the office.
The Guardian Council, which vets all major candidates, gave a thumbs’ down to Rafsanjani for the 2013 race. Four years earlier, another ex-president, reformist Mohammad Khatami, bowed out in advance when it became clear that his comeback attempt would be swatted down.
Khatami then threw his support behind candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose defeat by Ahmadinejad in 2009 brought widespread accusations of vote rigging and touched off the most serious domestic unrest and crackdowns since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Mousavi, his wife and other 2013 candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.
An online presence for politicos is nothing new in Iran, which gives mainstream political officials a wide berth on the Web even as authorities clamp down on cyber-dissent. Ahmadinejad, however, is no ordinary figure. There are almost no middle-of-the road comments on the new Web site.
''Absurd," said one message. "Inspiring," said another.