Meet Ahmadinejad’s Chosen Successor

The Power Struggle Begins in Iran

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei speaks in Tehran, July 2009. Yalda Moaiery / Courtesy Reuters

On June 14, Iran will hold a presidential election. If the acrimony and fraud of the 2009 election was not enough to cast a pall over this vote, then the ongoing power struggle between Supreme Leader Aytollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surely is. Term limits prevent Ahmadinejad from running for reelection, but he refuses to leave office quietly -- he has been grooming his chief of staff and close confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as a successor. Khamenei does not like either Ahmadinejad or Mashaei, seeing them as part of a “deviant faction” that stands in the way of clerical rule. It is a nasty squabble without any heroes, and regardless of who wins, the real loser will be democracy in Iran.

For a period of five days next month, from May 7 to May 11, Iran’s Guardian Council will vet the candidates, choosing who can and cannot run. Mashaei has not yet officially announced his candidacy, since this can be done only during those days, after which the council has ten days to rule on his candidacy.

Mashaei, a young-looking 53-year-old, has a broad range of experience in Iranian government and society. An electrical engineer by training, he worked after the 1979 revolution in Kurdistan and the Iranian province of Western Azerbaijan for the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence division. He also held positions in the Ministry of Intelligence, as chief of a special department dealing with Kurdistan; the Ministry of the Interior, as a general manager; and on government radio. He got to know Ahmadinejad while working for the Tehran municipality when Ahmadinejad was the city’s mayor.

Mashaei filled several different posts during Ahmadinejad’s first term, from 2005–9, and was appointed vice president at the beginning of the second term. Mashaei’s promotion led to protests on the part of the “sources of emulation,” the primary religious authorities followed by pious Shiites, and the faqihs (Islamic jurists). In July 2009, Khamenei requested that Mashaei be removed from office, but Ahmadinejad refused to dismiss him.

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