Iran’s Ahmadinejad leaves trail of guesses about his future

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s president has no trouble making himself heard: rumbling through the U.N.’s annual world gathering this week with comments bashing homosexuality, describing Israel as a doomed misfit in the Middle East and predicting a rising tide against U.S. “bullying.”

On one point, however, he is mum: his plans after elections next June that will close out his second and final term.

Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so far has dodged questions about possible post-presidential roles with cryptic replies or inscrutable silence. Yet this much is clear: Despite his bravado at the United Nations and other international forums, he heads into the last months of his presidency politically wounded at home from skirmishes with Iran’s ruling system.

His departure as president also could lead to a more toned-down approach from Iran in general over its nuclear program and possible deal-making with the West, analysts say.

Iran’s theocracy directs all key policies — including the pace of nuclear development and negotiations with the West — leaving the president, in theory, to shepherd domestic affairs and other issues. In reality, however, Mr. Ahmadinejad has reshaped the office into an international soapbox with messages that may or may not be sanctioned from the top.

Iran’s ruling clerics have grown weary of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s showboating style and his attempts to extend the powers of his office. This will likely mean the Islamic establishment will green-light only trusted and predictable insiders to run as his successor.

It also could free up Iran’s outreach. A united front between the ruling system and the presidency could bring more confidence in pursuing new proposals, such as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s mention of possible direct talks with Washington.

“It’s too late for Ahmadinejad to be carrying such a policy message” because of his politically damaged aura, said prominent Tehran-based political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand. “The Americans may buy it if it comes from somebody else.”

This leaves Mr. Ahmadinejad as mostly a placeholder until elections. The real interest is shifting to what he will do next.

“Don’t expect Ahmadinejad to fade away,” said Scott Lucas, an Iranian affairs expert at Britain’s Birmingham University. “He will try to maintain some kind of political visibility. It’s just unclear exactly what shape it will take.”

Speculation on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s future has veered in several directions. Some believe he will keep a nucleus of political allies as a brain trust with an eye toward possibly seeking a place on the ballot in 2017. Others see him shifting into a kind of populist champion, possibly leading a foundation focusing on his political base among the poor.

In one of his only hints about his plans, Mr. Ahmadinejad told a German newspaper in June that he could “return to scientific work” at a university while also keeping his fingers in politics. He holds a doctorate in civil engineering and traffic planning from Tehran’s University of Science and Technology.

On Monday in New York, he also tossed out the prospect that he could return as part of Iran’s delegation to the U.N. General Assembly.

And in early September, he set Iranian social media sites buzzing after an apparent joke in response to a reporter’s question noting that term limits make this his last year in office.

“How do you know it will be the final year?” a grinning Mr. Ahmadinejad said. It set off rumors he would try to seek some way to stay in power, even though he clarified that the remark was a reference to the longevity of Iran’s Islamic system.

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