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Analysis: Iran's Ahmadinejad will fight 'like Scarface' for his political future

Khalil Hamra / AP

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seen here during a visit to Egypt on Thursday, is fighting for his political future, experts say.

News analysis

Published at 4:10 a.m. ET: He has become the world’s biggest bogeyman for many in the West — infamous for calling for Israel to be wiped from the map, describing the Holocaust as "a myth" and, allegedly, seeking a nuclear bomb.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was once almost untouchable at home in Iran — daring even to challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But in recent days he has come under such a severe attack from rivals that some experts now believe he is "finished."


However, it seems clear that Ahmadinejad will go down fighting "like Scarface" in the words of one analyst.

After two terms, the former Revolutionary Guard must stand down ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June. Ahmadinejad appears to be hoping that a supporter will succeed him in office, enabling him to retain some power.

On Feb. 3, the Iranian parliament crossed a line with Ahmadinejad by dismissing one of his allies, the EAWorldView website reported.

Ahmadinejad went on the attack on the floor of the parliament, threatening to make public one of his secret files he claims to have on his rivals. "Should I tell? Should I tell?" he said, according to a translation on EAWorldView.

The speaker of parliament, the powerful Ali Larijani, called his bluff, saying: "Go ahead." It later emerged that the audio tape that supposedly exposed corruption involving Larijani’s brother Fazel was inaudible. The humiliating episode was broadcast live on Iranian radio.

Professor Scott Lucas, who edits EAWorldView, said he believed Ahmadinejad was effectively "finished."

Once upon a time, the president’s threats had kept his rivals in check. But "what happened this week showed they’re not scared enough to back down," Lucas added.

'Sulked'
Lucas, a professor at Birmingham University in England, said that in addition to making enemies in parliament, Ahmadinejad had flouted Khamenei’s power.

He even tried to take over the Ministry of Intelligence in 2011. "That’s the supreme leader’s domain. He was smacked down for that firmly and then he boycotted his duties. … He went and sulked," Lucas said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discusses freedom of expression, insults against Islam and the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie in a meeting with reporters on Monday, two days before his final address to the U.N. General Assembly as president.

Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council, said it was "way too early" to write Ahmadinejad’s political obituary.

"He’s not going to go down without a fight — here’s a guy putting at least some of the regime’s dirty laundry out," he said. "He’s kind of like Scarface at the end of the movie."

Marashi, who worked for four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department and was also a political consultant in Tehran, said Ahmadinejad’s exchange with Larijani was meant as only "a warning shot."

"At the end of the day, he knows too much," he added.

The president sparked headlines in the West when he said on Monday — the day after the confrontation in parliament — that he wanted to be an astronaut on the first manned Iranian space flight.

“It was completely missed here [in the West] that that was meant for domestic consumption,” Marashi said.

He said Ahmadinejad was really sending a message to his internal enemies: “You want to take me out … I’m willing to die.”

Former U.S. Ambassador John Limbert, now a professor of international affairs at the U.S. Naval College, was held hostage in Iran with 51 other Americans after Islamist students took over the American Embassy in 1979. During his captivity, he met Khamenei in an encounter that was filmed

He is married to an Iranian, is a scholar of Persian poetry and has had connections with the country for some 50 years.

Seeking martyrdom?
Limbert said the deck appeared “pretty much stacked against” Ahmadinejad, but added “you have to say he’s going to go down fighting.”

"There’s a wonderful word in Persian … 'serteq.' It means 'just doesn’t take any crap from anybody,' 'provokes confrontation,' 'rather than walks through a door, bangs his head against the wall,'" Limbert said.

"That’s a word that to me describes him. It's … pejorative, but also there’s a certain admiration for somebody who doesn’t bend," he added.

Limbert said Ahmadinejad might even be trying to provoke his enemies to attempt to unseat him before the election, possibly in the hope of turning himself into a martyr figure.

These internal struggles are likely to hurt efforts to end the standoff between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program before the June election.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, the West and Israel fear it wants to build a nuclear bomb, a concern that has raised the prospect of airstrikes to take out its nuclear facilities.

But will a new president help or hinder the negotiations? Possible contenders named by several experts were Khamenei's foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, former Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.

Fariborz Ghadar, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, held a vice-ministerial position in the government of the Shah, which was ousted by the revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power. 

He said Ghalibaf had done a "very good job of managing Tehran" and would "be a better manager of the economy than Ahmadinejad was."

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

But he said he thought Iran’s relations with the West would be "probably the same" if Ghalibaf came to power.

While there might be a temporary boost with the departure of the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad, Ghadar feared the Western media would soon turn on Ghalibaf or whoever triumphs in the election. "It will probably be good until we get somebody else totally demonized," he said.

But Ghadar was also not quite prepared to rule out Ahmadinejad’s faction, saying someone might stay quiet until they got through the vetting process to become a presidential candidate, then signal they were sympathetic toward his camp.

The opposition Green movement is currently "out of the picture," Ghadar said, but its supporters might back such a candidate over a strict religious conservative — an unusual alliance given the protests amid Green faction claims that the last presidential election was rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favor.

Whether this is his strategy is unclear.

But, like Marashi, Ghadar also said he believed Ahmadinejad might still have a chance.

"I think Ahmadinejad still has a couple of bullets in his gun," he said, "although they are not as powerful as before."

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