Ahmadinejad disregarded notions that the strike might serve as a message for Iran, which has been backing the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad since the outbreak of the civil war six years ago. “Iran is a powerful country and people like Mr. Trump or the United States administration cannot hurt Iran,” the former president said in an interview with the AP, vaguely commenting upon the newly assertive US policy that has been initiated by President Donald Trump.
Last week, Ahmadinejad apparently surprised the Iranian political establishment by registering as a candidate in the May 19 presidential election, against the wishes of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in all matters of Iranian policy. His recent statements capitalize upon the renewed national and international prominence that he has enjoyed since the registration. They also strike a familiar tone, invoking the nationalist rhetoric that characterized his two-term presidency, as well as expressing the same supposed readiness for war that characterizes many of the public statements by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in which Ahmadinejad was formerly an officer.
But despite Ahmadinejad dismissing the threat posed to Iran by the US, the AP claims that he “avoided repeating inflammatory statements that made him infamous in the West” and dodged certain questions that might have given rise to intensified rhetoric. The article also stated that he “struck a mostly conciliatory tone during the interview, taking care to not stir up controversy that could alienate voters or clerical authorities.” This description of his public tone may suggest that at least for the time being Ahmadinejad is striving to present himself as a similar alternative to the supposedly moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani.
Ahmadinejad even went so far as to express tentative support for the Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has made Rouhani a target for intense backlash from hardline conservatives in the lead-up to his campaign for reelection. The deal was viewed by some figures as showing unacceptable willingness to compromise with the longstanding adversaries of the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Guards have seemingly attempted to counteract this impression by ramping up aggressive rhetoric and close encounters with US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf.
Now, Ahmadinejad appears to be taking a careful approach to encouraging an adversarial tone toward Western adversaries without directly undermining the nuclear agreement and its effects on the Iranian economy. A further consequence of this is that there is arguably far less difference between Ahmadinejad’s and Rouhani’s foreign policy postures than there was when Rouhani was first elected in 2013. The Iranian constitution barred Ahmadinejad from running for a third term, but permits a former president to return after a one-term gap.
After spearheading the nuclear negotiations that concluded in June 2015, Rouhani has presumably felt pressure from hardliners to reassert Iran’s independence and national pride. The US strike on Syria has provided his administration with a unique opportunity to do so by decrying what hardliners strive to portray as baseless American aggression in the Middle East. The USA Today recently published a video clip of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accusing the US of using the Syrian chemical attack as a means to score political points.
But the Rouhani administration’s defiance of the US has reached well beyond commentary on the Al Shayrat strike. It can even be seen as having recently stood toe-to-toe with the rhetoric coming from hardliners like Ahmadinejad. On Saturday, Reuters quoted Rouhani himself as saying that the Islamic Republic needs “on one’s permission” for the buildup of its stockpiles of missiles and other military equipment.
The 2015 nuclear agreement was followed by a United Nations Security Council resolution that called upon Iran to avoid the development, stockpiling, or testing of ballistic missile that are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, but the country has continued to carry out such tests, leading to the White House putting Tehran “on notice” soon after President Trump took office. Rouhani has defended these tests while criticizing the US for supposed imposition on Iran’s right to self-defense.
Rouhani’s remarks also implied that the Islamic Republic was under threat of unprovoked aggression from its Western adversaries – a position that the Revolutionary Guards and other hardliners have frequently used to justify an aggressive posture toward passing Western naval vessels and other such attempts at a show of force. In fact, UPI reported on Monday that Rouhani’s statements about Iran’s military buildup were delivered in the context of a ceremony purporting to showcase natively built Iranian military equipment, including a stealth fighter called Qaher F-313.
However, the aircraft did not flight during the demonstration, and even a propaganda video released by Iranian state media only showed the plane taxiing on a runway at a slow rate of speed, and appearing unstable while doing so. The lack of a full demonstration underscores the fact that military experts have dismissed the F-313 as a hoax that stands alongside a number of other jury-rigged pieces of military equipment in attempting to portray the Iranian military as being much more advanced than it is.
In an editorial published by the New York Post on Sunday, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton plainly declared that “Iran poses no significant military threat to the United States or its friends and allies.” The article went on to emphasize the need to confront the more credible threat of Iranian sponsored terrorist activity, which Bolton said could be accomplished in part by designating and sanctioning the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
Against the backdrop of nuclear negotiations, the Rouhani administration was previously presented by some Western policymakers as a moderating influence that might challenge the political dominance of the IRGC. But this has not come to pass, as evidenced by the IRGC’s increasing influence over the Syrian Civil War and other regional conflicts, as well as its prosecution of a crackdown on activists and journalists inside the Islamic Republic.
Insofar as the Rouhani administration’s recent, confrontational remarks reflect the talking points of the Revolutionary Guards and familiar hardline figures like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they can be expected to embolden Western commentators like Bolton, who call for assertive policies toward the Islamic Republic regardless of the precise makeup of its leadership.