Ahmadinejad Isn't Going Quietly

The Holocaust-denying Iranian leader has a favored candidate in the country's upcoming presidential election.

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves near the shrine of Hussein ibn Ali at the Cairo's Al-Hussein mosque, on February 5, 2013. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

Resistance is in the air in Tehran, with calls of "Viva Spring" ushering in the election season and signaling that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad does not intend to go quietly.

The slogan, widely seen as an endorsement for the candidacy of Ahmadinejad's right-hand man, Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei, has been used repeatedly by the outgoing president and his supporters in recent days.

With Ahmadinejad engaged in a power struggle with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his powerful allies, critics cite the slogan as evidence of the "deviant current," a term used by Iranian officials to refer to Ahmadinejad's inner circle. The president, who is completing his second and final term, has been accused of violating election laws and engineering the vote for his successor.

The Democracy ReportIn the eyes of Ahmadinejad's opponents, calls of "Viva Spring" mark the unofficial launch of Mashaei's election campaign and herald an attempt by Ahmadinejad to retain power by installing Mashaei as his placeholder until he is eligible to run again. The scenario has been compared to the Putin/Medvedev situation in Russia in which Vladimir Putin served as prime minister while his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, took over as president for one term.

When about 100 of Ahmadinejad's supporters welcomed him last week in Tehran upon his return from Egypt, they reportedly held posters with the slogan "Viva Spring." Mashaei, who received a hero's welcome along with Ahmadinejad, has indicated that "spring" is a reference to the return of the "Hidden Imam," who Shi'ite Muslims believe will reappear and bring justice to the world. "We have one spring. That is the Mahdi, who will come soon," he has been quoted as saying.

Ahmadinejad himself used the slogan at the end of his February 10 speech marking the 34th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The same day, "Viva Spring" surfaced on posters held by a number of individuals as they violently disrupted a speech in Qom by Ahmadinejad's rival, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, prompting him to leave the scene. The hard-line Alef website said chants in favor of Mashaei's presidency were also heard from the crowd.

Defying His Enemies

Mohammad Esmail Kowsari, a lawmaker and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, believes Ahmadinejad's use of the slogan is intended for the June 14 vote and, as such, is a "clear violation" and "engineering of the election."

Another lawmaker, Mohammad Hossein Asafri, has listed "Viva Spring" among the slogans of the "deviant current," of which Mashaei is considered a top figure. Mashaei is widely despised by the clerical establishment for promoting an Iranian doctrine instead of an Islamic one.​​

Mohammad Hossein Ziya, a journalist who campaigned for opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, believes the February 10 speech watched by millions of Iranians is part of a calculated effort. "All of these [developments], including a poll released by the government daily 'Iran' that claimed that Mashaei has 35 percent support in 24 areas of Tehran, are signs of an organized move by this group to magnify Mashaei and to use him," he says.

Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Britain's Birmingham University, agrees that Ahmadinejad was endorsing Mashaei. But there was more to the speech. "The bigger part of the story is that Ahmadinejad not only said, 'I want you to support Rahim Mashaei,' he then went on to say, 'My opponents are going to try to rig the elections.' And he called on the Iranian people to stand up against this and vote for the best man," Lucas says.

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