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Post-presidency, what's next for Iran's Ahmadinejad?

Mike Segar / Reuters file

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust existed, holds up copies of the Koran and the Bible as he addresses the 65th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York in this Sept. 23, 2010 file photo.

Friday’s presidential election in Iran dictates that the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s time in office will end soon, but experts say the controversial head of state is "unlikely to retire quietly."

After eight years in office – he was elected to a second term in 2009 amid riots over allegations of voting irregularities — Ahmadinejad has reached his term limit. Friday's election pitted six Iranian presidential hopefuls against each other; the victor, moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani, will lead a nation that has been marred by economic troubles and hit with sanctions from the West for its provocative nuclear program.

U.S.-based Iran experts don’t anticipate Ahmadinejad will fade away, and predict that he’ll do what he can to stay in the political spotlight.

"I suspect he's looking for a second act," said Suzanne Maloney, a fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute and a former State Department policy adviser.

“He is unlikely to retire quietly in the way that his predecessors have done where they play a role in the political scene, but they are very cautious not to disrupt the balance of power in any way. That's not Ahmadinejad's style," Maloney said.

At 56, Ahmadinejad is "a young man by the standards of Iranian politics," said New York City-based Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd, whose book “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran” explores contemporary Iranian culture while challenging Western beliefs about the nation.

"He has to retire temporarily," Majd said. "[But] he is eligible to run again in four years. I doubt very much knowing his personality that he is willing to give up on politics altogether. He has tasted power; he likes power. He believes very strongly that he is right about many things, as crazy as it may sound. He's not someone who has ever admitted a mistake. He always thinks he is right."

Whether it's in four years or eight years, Majd thinks Ahmadinejad could launch a successful campaign with the support of Iran’s lower classes, who have received cash subsidies during Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

"I think he will still be able to portray himself as a man of the people, taking care of the poor, not someone who has lived luxuriously. All those things that appeal to the working class," Majd said.

Others, including Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow of Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, are skeptical that Ahmadinejad will find a supportive public.

"He would have to have a constituency, a popular base. And he doesn't seem to have that," he said. "I think his presence in the last week of the election, his insignificance and inconsequentiality, probably portends his life after office."

"He's kind of alienated the institutions of the state and he doesn't have, particularly in the aftermath of the 2009 election, much of a popular constituency anymore," Takeyh said. "He can assert himself by making speeches, giving talks, and just being provocative, and that garners all sorts of attention, but in terms of influencing the country, he's not likely to be important."

"I think he'll continue to engage in public advocacy," he added. "He may even travel abroad to third-world countries, but I'm not sure if he'll be a force in terms of the domestic policies of the countries."

Whether Ahmadinejad will be able to build a base for a triumphant return also depends on what type of political environment the next president creates, said Ali Vaez, a senior analyst with the D.C.-based International Crisis Group, who used to head the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

"During [ex-President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani's time, people always accused him of being corrupt, and they were looking forward to his term ending. When [ex-President Mohammad] Khatami came to office, and the internal rivalries between the reformists and conservatives almost paralyzed the system, people were longing for Rafsanjani's time, when things were simple and straightforward," Vaez said.

"And then again during Khatami, there was a lot of frustration, with him not being able to implement political reforms, and then when Ahmadinejad came to power, everyone started missing Khatami and the openness and social freedoms that existed under his presidency. People have always been nostalgic about the previous presidents.

"If the administration improves, I think Ahmadinejad will have a hard time creating a positive legacy for himself," he said. "If you have a hard-line president who will watch over Iran's further economic decline and isolation, maybe people will start missing Ahmadinejad." 

Ahmadinejad to 'start teaching again'?
Ahmadinejad will have to occupy himself in the immediate future outside of Tehran’s presidential palace when he leaves office on Aug. 3. He holds a Ph.D. in traffic control and transportation from Tehran's University of Science and Technology — where he was once a lecturer.

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

"He himself has said that he will go back to the university and start teaching again," Vaez said. "He might even go and teach political science or international relations. He has said that he will go back to academic life. I take him at his word. I think it's the most likely scenario for him."

His legacy will be a complicated one.

"He will be remembered as a rabble-rouser," Maloney said. "In many respects, he's been a very paradoxical character. Obviously, the reprehensible rhetoric about Israel, about the Holocaust, is what has drawn him the greatest attention. And yet I think it's also fair to say that Ahmadinejad has at times pushed more significantly for changes that may have had positive implications for Iran under a different sort of leadership.

"He was the one figure within the establishment who was really pressing for some sort of a nuclear deal with Washington, and was turned around. That was blocked by the Supreme Leader and the rest of the conservative establishment," she said. "He also has managed to push through some economic reforms despite really tremendously awful management of the economy, but he's managed to address underlying issues that his predecessor simply didn't have the political will to put forward in terms of dealing with this problem of subsidies."

However, she added, "He will never get any credit for whatever positive intentions he had because he is such a reprehensible human being."