The morning is chilly and still dark at 6:25 a.m. when the first disciple arrives at “Square 72,” the cramped, tree-lined roundabout in eastern Tehran where Iran’s lightning-rod former president lives humbly – and plots an improbable political comeback.
In the West, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is remembered as a fire-breathing arch-conservative obsessed with Israel’s destruction and dismissive of the Holocaust – a leader who trumpeted Iran as a superpower and harped on upending the “unjust” US-led global order.
Inside Iran, his legacy is of populist politics with a rare common touch and the spending of billions on helping the poor; a man with a street-fighter style that created powerful enemies and led to charges of colossal economic mismanagement. He even brashly stood up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As dawn unfolds, children arrive at an adjacent school, filling the air with playground noise as more than a dozen of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s acolytes gather on the sidewalk to meet their hero and ask for help as indications grow he may run for parliament or higher office.
Some Iranians, like these, see Ahmadinejad as their savior, a problem-solver who can commune with the pious poor. But to his many critics, Ahmadinejad is a loose cannon whose eight years in power ended in disgrace.
So, an actual comeback? Many Iranians roll their eyes at the prospect, for a man who so tarnished the conservative brand that the centrist Hassan Rouhani swept the June 2013 elections to succeed him.
It is far from clear how far Ahmadinejad may go this time, propelled by a small but active coterie of loyalists. But his reemergence is seen by some as a handy tool to remind President Rouhani and Washington alike of the risk of failure.
Ahmadinejad and hard-line factions “are elements of a game, and the director of this game is the supreme leader,” says Amir Mohebian, a conservative analyst and editor.
“The signal for Mr. Rouhani is this: ‘You are not the only power in politics, you have some opposition groups, and you should compromise,’ ” says Mr. Mohebian. “And it’s a signal to the US and radical groups [in Congress] that, ‘We have the same radicals in Iran. If you do not help Mr. Obama solve the [nuclear] program, the situation will become worse.’ ”
“What helps Ahmadinejad be a real player in this game is the weakness and faults of Mr. Rouhani,” says Mohebian. “One of the problems of Rouhani’s strategy is a greater gap between the rich and poor. Ahmadinejad can say, ‘I am the face of the poor, and of the revolutionaries.’ ”
That is the face the former president puts forward every morning outside his front door.
Die-hard supporters portray him these days as side-by-side with Ayatollah Khamenei in wishing to return to the original values of Iran’s 1979 revolution, such as taking care of the poor and challenging the US and Israel.
“He has a bright mind – he can help,” says Seyed Ibrahim Azizi, whose Hemingwayesque gray beard and fisherman’s cap ward off the dawn cold. A candy shop owner who says he’s “100 percent” sure Ahmadinejad would win a seat in parliament, Mr. Azizi adds: “He has a vision and has a very big and over-arching thought.”
Wearing a light-gray herringbone woolen jacket, and his face more creased with age, Ahmadinejad steps out of his house and walks toward the line of people. He gets right to business, spending a couple minutes with each person, serious or laughing, hearing them out and taking their letters of request.
The banter was familiar during his presidency. In his first two years in office he received 7,230,286 such letters, for example, many of them answered with cash or solutions that recipients remember.
On this day, he hears about economic difficulties, and receives a letter from a young man with heavily bandaged hands. One woman says her husband was wounded by chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, has lung problems, and wants to retire from his railway job so he can move to an area with cleaner air.
Ahmadinejad’s face darkens when Azizi shows him a photo of his son, shot in the spine and paralyzed during protests in 2009, when elections controversially gave Ahmadinejad a second term.
“This is my house, you can see people are standing here. Everyone is free to come,” Ahmadinejad tells The Christian Science Monitor, when all are spoken to. He prefers not to answer questions about a comeback.
Mohebian, the analyst, suggests that Ahmadinejad’s prospects would vanish if Rouhani reaches a nuclear deal with the US.
Powerful political forces have sought to contain Ahmadinejad. His recent attempt to set up his own university was not approved. This week his ally Saeed Mortazavi, the hard-line former Tehran prosecutor, was banned from politics for his role in the deaths of three protesters in 2009.
And few here forget Khamenei’s body language in early September, when Ahmadinejad visited the leader in hospital after he underwent surgery. Contrary to how he greeted all other high-profile visitors, Khamenei appeared to turn his head away when Ahmadinejad leaned over to kiss his cheek.
A poem about the visit – with a montage of the ex-president standing back, and Khamenei in his bed – was published on Instagram and a Google Plus account under Ahmadinejad's name:
It seems I am used to this distance
I dared to come visit you
I came to show you how daring I am in the path of love
“The government is not letting him speak, but he still has that popularity,” says Mohammad Hossein Heydari, editor of the pro-Ahmadinejad website dolatebahar.com. “While the social path is easy for him, the political one right now is pressurized and hard.”
“Ahmadinejad is the place where religion and politics intersect. He’s the person who is completely powerful,” he continues, with the conviction of a true believer. The 27-year-old, with combed-back hair and a blue plaid shirt, has volunteered for Ahmadinejad’s cause for two years.
Ahmadinejad’s friends are tireless, and the former president has held or sought meetings with key figures across Iran’s political spectrum – including reformists.
“The relations between Ahmadinejad and the leader is way more than government – it’s a relationship of the heart,” asserts Abdolreza Davari, a founder of the HOMA media group. The acronym stands for “Fans of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
“We wanted to rebuild public opinion toward us,” says Mr. Davari. “We have started a process.”
Not all are convinced. “The people aren’t at all the way these believers are,” says one architecture student from the southwestern city of Ahvaz, appreciative of the expanded freedoms under Ahmadinejad’s successor.
Under Rouhani, the student says, he can “breathe easier, because the morality police activities are much less. There is no chance that Ahmadinejad will come back, because people care more about less restrictions.”