TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — By now, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is well-accustomed to enduring blows from Iran's ruling clerics as his reputation fell from favored son to political outcast. But their intended parting shot — barring his chief aid from the presidential race — may be just the opening act in Ahmadinejad's reinvention as a self-styled opposition force.
Ahmadinejad vowed Wednesday to use what clout he has left to challenge the ruling by election overseers to block his protege from the June 14 ballot to pick Iran's next president.
His chances of success are likely very small. Yet his refusal to accept the ruling clerics' judgment is a sign that his political transition is already underway from an insider at odds with the leadership to an outsider with the potential to be even more disruptive.
"The election will be as much about what Ahmadinejad does as the candidates running to replace him," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He still remains in the spotlight."
Ahmadinejad — once seen as firmly within the theocracy's fold — is now viewed by the leadership as a troublesome maverick after trying to challenge the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The rejection Tuesday of his confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei — though widely expected and greatly overshadowed by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also being ruled unfit for the race — marks an important crossroads for Ahmadinejad.
He is left politically adrift with no clear candidate to back and a highly uncertain future after he steps down. He could seek an alliance with one of the eight candidates approved by the ruling clerics — nearly all close allies of Khamenei — by offering his still significant popular base, mainly in rural and poor areas that benefited from his government's development projects and handouts.
More likely, however, is that Ahmadinejad could try to carve out his own political movement as an alternative voice in a country facing a multitude of problems, including an economy dragged down in part by sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
Iran already has a range of political factions from ultraconservative to liberal- leaning. But none stand out as a credible opposition force since the Green Movement was crushed after Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election.
Ahmadinejad does not openly share its Western-looking views and is unlikely to call for bold reforms, but any political group he leads could become a powerful platform for self-promotion and to keep his successor off-balance.
It also would be ultimate payback after years of pressures from the ruling system. Iran's theocracy seeks to end the internal political battles with its slate of establishment-friendly candidates. Instead, Ahmadinejad could play the role of spoiler. "A victim of injustice" is how Ahmadinejad described Mashaei's exclusion from the ballot.
His comments were in clear contrast to Rafsanjani, perhaps Iran's pre-eminent elder statesman, who appeared to accept the decision by the Guardian Council, which whittled down a list of 686 hopefuls. His campaign manager, Eshagh Jahangiri, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency Wednesday that Rafsanjani "will not protest" the decision despite his stature as one of the leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and his 1989-97 tenure as president.
The 78-year-old Rafsanjani posed a quandary for the theocracy.
He spoke out against the crackdowns on protests in 2009 claiming massive vote rigging in Ahmadinejad's re-election. When Rafsanjani announced his comeback bid earlier this month, he quickly pulled in endorsements from top reformists and liberals — which raised worries by authorities that opposition movements could regroup after years of arrests and pressure.
But he also is a pillar of the Islamic state. A rejection from the ballot risked the decision being interpreted as an indictment against the system itself.
In the end, the ruling clerics sought to finesse the snub by citing concerns about his age and suggesting he remains too divisive to return to Iran's highest elected post.
No such hand-wringing was needed for the protege of Ahmadinejad, who is barred from running because of term limits.
The blackballing of aide Mashaei is an extension of internal power struggles launched by Ahmadinejad that tried to challenge the structure of how Iran is run: All major powers and policymaking is reserved to Khamenei, the supreme leader. The president's portfolio mostly involves domestic affairs and conveying the ruling cleric's views on the world stage.
Ahmadinejad's attempt to expand the presidential reach was a costly miscalculation. It collapsed his standing with Khamenei — who stood by him during the 2009 riots and protests — and greatly undercut his influence. Dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies have been arrested or politically marginalized.
Mashaei was spared detention, but faced a sweeping character assassination from Khamenei loyalists. It included being cast as head of a "deviant current" that sought to undermine Iran's Islamic system through claims of greater allegiance to a Shiite messianic figure known as the hidden imam. Some critics even accused Mashaei of using sorcery to fog Ahmadinejad's mind.
In a reflection of the polarizing effect of the political battles, Iran's police chief, Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghaddam, was quoted this week by the official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying it was "permissible to spill the blood" of anyone opposing Iran's system called "velayat-e-faqih," loosely translated as rule of the clerics. The same news agency, which is under the control of Ahmadinejad's administration, later denounced Moghaddam, saying he should "go back from where he came."
Still, none of the fallout has weakened Ahmadinejad's support for Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son. Ahmadinejad led a campaign roadshow for Mashaei under the slogan "Long Live Spring."
Ahmadinejad now has just one last play: humbling himself and appealing directly to Khamenei to overrule the Guardian Council and place Mashaei on the ballot. Ahmadinejad said he would go through with it, but chances for a Khamenei reprieve are extremely slim.
"I don't think he will disrupt the election, but he won't leave power easily," said Tehran-based political analyst Sadeq Zibakalam. "He won't sit calmly by."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the candidate list is "based solely on who the regime believes will represent its interests, rather than those of the Iranian people."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this story.