Ahmadinejad’s return to public eye in Iran fuels talk of a comeback

On a podium decorated as a bunker from the Iran-Iraq war, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad woos a crowd of hundreds with an anti-Western speech reminiscent of his fiery addresses as Iran’s president.

At the end of the event in Jiroft in southeast Iran, held partly to honor victims of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, some of the crowd chant: “The slogan of any man is that Ahmadinejad is coming back.”

After nearly three years out of the public eye following two terms as president, Ahmadinejad has made a handful of appearances in the past few weeks, including his speech last week in Jiroft, which have stoked talk of a political comeback.

The 59-year-old conservative and populist has made no announcement about his future or addressed speculation that he plans to stand in the next presidential election, due in 2017.

But if he does run, he could cause problems for his pragmatic successor, Hassan Rouhani, who gained popularity after the deal with world powers that led to most sanctions on Iran being lifted in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

“In the presidency it’s the individual that is important. Political groups are not important. In reality, an individual can start a wave,” Massoud Mirkazemi, a former oil minister under Ahmadinejad, told the Asr-e-Iran website in an interview published on Wednesday.

“Whoever can start this wave will get votes. Ahmadinejad has started, and can start this wave,” he said, predicting his political ally would defeat Rouhani if he runs.

Ahmadinejad’s chances of success are hard to assess.

He did not run in the last presidential election, in June 2013, because of Iranian constitutional limits, and conservatives suffered setbacks in March elections to parliament and the Assembly of Experts which will select Iran’s next supreme leader, the country’s highest authority.

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But Ahmadinejad could be the conservatives’ best hope of bouncing back in next year’s election although his relations with some of them are strained.

“Hardliners recognize Ahmadinejad is the only person that can stand up to the reformists and their candidates,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based political analyst who worked as an advisor to former President Mohammad Khatami.

“His activity has grown very, very much. And he’s caused a stir in various places.”

As president for eight years, Ahmadinejad frequently enraged the international community with his fierce rhetoric against the United States and Israel, his defiant stand on Iran’s disputed nuclear program and persistent questioning of the Holocaust.

Supporters praise him for defending traditional values and standing up to the West. Opponents criticize him for his economic record and over allegations of high-level corruption while he was president.

Although largely about freedom and democracy, last week’s speech in Jiroft hit a familiar theme by condemning “oppressors” in a dig at the West, and the United States in particular.

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