The Iranian flag is seen in front of the building of the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ahead of a press conference by Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, on the monitoring of the Iranian nuclear energy program on May 24, 2021 in Vienna, Austria.
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As Iran prepares for the elections on Friday, the country’s former president has called on the US over interference in the Middle East.
In an extensive interview with CNBC before the vote, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the 2015 nuclear deal “caused more problems than it solved” and cast doubt on the legitimacy of his country’s election.
“Any decision that prevents the people from influencing the outcome is contrary to the spirit of the revolution and the constitution,” former Iranian President Ahmadinejad told CNBC.
The comments come after the former president’s candidacy was rejected by the Iranian Guardian Council, the oversight body of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The move essentially prevented him from running in the 2021 election.
“On the day I announced my candidacy, I made it clear that I would not vote in the elections if the will of millions of people is denied for no legitimate reason, as has been the case in the past”, said Ahmadinejad about the decision to expel him.
A field of more than 600 candidates was narrowed to just five on Thursday. The race for the presidency is seen today as a contest between the moderate former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati and the tough justice chief Ebrahim Raisi.
Analysts say Raisi is the “clear front runner” with the highest profile among the candidates. Raisi served and ran in the Iranian judiciary for four decades, but lost to Rouhani in the 2017 election.
Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office between 2005 and 2013 were marked by violent clashes in which he repeatedly cracked down on US policies in the region and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and Israel.
The former leader told CNBC that any change in leadership will have an impact on already strained relations between the United States and Iran, which are negotiating to free a troubled Iranian economy from sanctions in exchange for new restrictions on its controversial nuclear program.
TEHERAN, IRAN – MAY 12: Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reads his statement while attending a press center after running as a candidate for the June 18 presidential elections in the Iranian Interior Ministry building on May 12, 2021 in Tehran, Iran, has registered.
Majid Saeedi | Getty Images News | Getty Images
“The JCPOA caused more problems than it solved,” said Ahmadinejad when asked about the agreement that former US President Trump abandoned in 2018, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Originally signed between Iran and the world powers in 2015, the JCPOA restricted the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of the sanctions.
The former president said he believed a new nuclear deal with the United States was possible, but the timing of an agreement was still uncertain given the obvious differences between the two sides.
“I believe the two countries need to change their perspective and look at each other differently,” said Ahmadinejad. “If we do things in accordance with justice and mutual respect, then I believe the problems can be solved.”
The President’s lead candidate, Raisi, has spoken out in favor of the Iranian nuclear talks in the past, but it is unclear how a change in leadership in Iran will affect the negotiations.
“While it would theoretically be possible to conclude the talks and have everything signed before Rouhani resigns, past experience shows that the nuclear talks are proceeding at a snail’s pace even without political complications,” said Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov.
“We doubt that Raisi will be as belligerent and flashy as Ahmadinejad, but they are ideologically closer than Rouhani,” he added. “Depending on what Raisi says after the election and how his government behaves in the beginning, the talks may even be suspended, although that would be a pretty extreme scenario.”
Relations between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf have begun to thaw since the election of US President Joe Biden, but the former President of Iran says US “interference” over arms sales remains a challenge to regional stability.
“When tens of billions of dollars in arms are sold annually to countries in the region, it creates big problems.” said Ahmadinejad. “This threatens the security of the region and is viewed as interference … the US government should not try to control Iran or the Middle East.”
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US is the world’s largest arms supplier and the Middle East is an important export market. The US approved the sale of $ 23 billion in arms to the UAE earlier this year. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a major Iranian rival, are currently under review.
Iran’s economy and vital oil exports have been paralyzed by the double blow of Covid-19 and sanctions from the US and other world powers. To date, over 3 million people in the country have tested positive for the coronavirus and over 82,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“The Iranian people believe that the response to the Covid pandemic in the country has failed,” said Ahmadinejad. “I have to say that the front lines and the medical professionals have worked tirelessly, but the overall management has been ineffective and unwise,” he added.
Iran’s economic blow from Covid-19 was less pronounced than in other countries, as its economy had already shrunk by 12% in the previous two years.
A new nuclear deal and the easing of sanctions would enable new revenue to flow in early on during the term of office of a new government. According to the World Bank, Iran’s real gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by 1.7% in the period 2020-2021.
Iranian officials say oil production could reach up to 4 million barrels a day within 90 days of the sanctions being lifted. As it stands, Iran’s oil exports are minimal as Trump-era sanctions continue to discourage most international buyers.
– CNBC’s Emma Graham contributed to this article.