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TEHRAN, Iran — A familiar face reappeared on Iran’s political scene before a cheering crowd in a mosque in a working-class part of Tehran over the weekend: firebrand former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Iran is stronger today than ever because it has kept on the path of the revolution, the imperialists will never dominate this country again,” Ahmadinejad declared in his first major public appearance since ceding power to centrist President Hassan Rouhani in August 2013.
The speech came at crucial time for Ahmadinejad's successor amid make-or-break negotiations with the Islamic republic over its disputed nuclear program and just ahead of Wednesday's 36th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The crowd of up to 2,000 people at Ahmadinejad's rally erupted with chants of “Death to America,” “Death to England” and “Death to Israel.” Behind him was a poster bearing the image of a burning American flag and anti-American slogans.
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On the opposite wall hung a huge photograph of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei looking down with a fatherly gaze — presumably a message to the crowd that Ahmadinejad still has the backing of the most powerful man in the land.
“He is the best president we had,” Fatheme, a 26-year-old mother who attended the mosque rally with her three-year-old daughter, told NBC News. “He cared so much for the people, he really helped us.”
After eight years in office, Ahmadinejad stepped aside after reaching his term limit. Relations with the West suffered under Ahmadinejad's rule and he attained infamy for allegedly calling for Israel to be wiped from the map and described the Holocaust as "a myth."
"Sometimes when the extremists come out of the woodwork it is because they feel weak instead of feeling strong"
However, the crowd at the mosque on Sunday could be an indication of problems to come for Rouhani if high-stakes nuclear talks with the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France fail and the world once again ratchets up economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Swaths of the country are deeply skeptical of the détente with the West that Rouhani’s government is trying to engineer. If Rouhani fails, hardliners may once again have an upper hand.
Nuclear talks are aimed at easing Western worries that Tehran will pursue a nuclear weapons program, in return for the lifting of sanctions that have damaged the Iranian economy. Officials have said they aim to agree on the outline of a deal by March, with June 30 as the final deadline.
On Wednesday, Rouhani marked the uprising's 36th anniversary with a speech in which he called a nuclear settlement with the U.S. a win-win. He also denied that U.S. sanctions had brought Iran to the negotiating table.
If Rouhani seals a deal, moderates in Iran could be empowered and the pact could help to bring the country in from the cold internationally, according to Yossi Mekelberg, professor of international relations at London’s Regent's University and fellow at international think tank Chatham House.
“I look at Ahmadinejad and unless I’m proved wrong he is a noise,” Mekelberg said. “One of the reasons he wants to make noise now is that he is afraid that an agreement is imminent ... sometimes when the extremists come out of the woodwork it is because they feel weak instead of feeling strong.”
Jim Philips, an expert in the Middle East for conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, agrees that it is unlikely that Ahmadinejad will regain the presidency in Tehran. However, he maintained that Iran’s rulers are unlikely to abandon any nuclear ambitions unless the regime concludes it hold on power is truly at stake.
“That in turn is unlikely without stronger sanctions and the credible threat of the use of major military force, both of which the Obama administration is unlikely to carry out,” Philips said. “Instead, it already has relaxed sanctions and downplayed the possible use of force, which has undermined U.S. bargaining leverage.”
Republicans in Congress are threatening to impose further economic sanctions on Iran, against the wishes of the White House, which may scuttle a deal.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long opposed a deal with Iran saying that Tehran cannot be trusted with sensitive nuclear technology, is set to address Congress on the subject on March 3 at the invitation of Republicans in Congress.
Great Britain’s former ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton disagreed with Philips, and said that doubling down of sanctions would actually empower hardliners.
“There will be lots of encouragement for the conservative vision of the resistance economy and standing up to Iran’s enemies,” he said. “The narrative of the untrustworthiness of Iran’s enemies will get a huge boost because they will publicize how far they were prepared to go and allege that the negotiations failed because of the inability of the U.S. system to act coherently.”
Dalton added: "There has been a discussion lately as to whether the Iranian delegation warned the American delegation that Rouhani’s position would be endangered if negotiations failed. It wouldn’t be surprising if an Iranian at some point in the talks said that to an American.”
On the streets of Iran, Rouhani’s battle to secure a deal that protects his country’s interests and security is being watched carefully by the likes of Hamid, a 47-year-old mechanic who longs for the Ahmadinejad days.
“He stood up to the Americans and gave us great respect,” he said. “The world is recognizing our right because of his time as president.”
F. Brinley Bruton reported from London.