TEHRAN: During a celebration last week to mark the Persian New Year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did something quietly remarkable: He stood modestly to the side and let his favoured aide have the spotlight.
The gesture was far more than just a rare demure moment from the normally grandstanding leader. It was more carefully scripted stagecraft in Ahmadinejad's long shot efforts to promote the political fortunes of his chief of staff and in-law and seek a place for him on the June presidential ballot that will pick Iran's next president.
In the waning months of Ahmadinejad's presidency, weakened by years of internal battles with the ruling clerics, there appears no bigger priority than attempting one last surprise. It's built around rehabilitating the image of Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei and somehow getting him a place among the candidates for the June 14 vote.
Mashaei has long been a close Ahmadinejad aide, and his daughter is married to the president's son; a closeness that entails unquestionable loyalty, which is perhaps the main reason why Iran's clerical establishment is set against him.
To get Mashaei on the list of presidential contenders, Ahmadinejad must do what has eluded him so far: Come out on top in a showdown with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other guardians of the Islamic Republic.
Ahmadinejad has been slapped down hard after bold but ultimately doomed attempts in recent years to push the influence of his office on policies and decisions reserved for the ruling clerics, that has left him limping into the end of his eight-year presidency with many allies either jailed or pushed to the political margins.
Mashaei is part of the collateral damage. But the aide has been discredited as part of a ''deviant current'' that critics say seeks to undermine Islamic rule in Iran and elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia. The smear campaign has even included rumours that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to cloud Ahmadinejad's judgment.
The prevailing wisdom is that the backlash has effectively killed Mashaei's chances for the presidential ballot. The ruling clerics vet all candidates and, the theory follows, they seek a predictable slate of loyalists after dealing with Ahmadinejad's ambitions and disruptive power plays.
In short, friends of Ahmadinejad need not apply. Khamenei and others, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, also are hoping to quell domestic political spats that they fear project a sense of instability during critical negotiations with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.
Yet none of this seems to have discouraged Ahmadinejad, who has been trying to groom Mashaei for years as his potential heir and now appears reluctant to toss his backing behind a less controversial figure.
To that end, the president has hit the road as a cheerleader for Mashaei under the slogan ''Long Live Spring.'' At one stop, Ahmadinejad described Mashaei as ''a pious man.'' At another event he called him ''excellent, wise,'' and at a third said his adviser has ''a heart like a mirror.'' At last week's event, both men burst into tears as they discussed the need to help children with cancer. Ahmadinejad then ''thanked God for having the opportunity to get to know Mashaei.''
Ahmadinejad appears to be banking on his populist appeal to force the Guardian Council, the gatekeepers for the candidates to consider Mashaei too prominent to reject.
''Ahmadinejad doesn't want to go out with a whimper. That's not his style,'' said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. ''He wants his legacy, his man, as his successor.''
Tehran-based political analyst Sadeq Zibakalam also sees Mashaei as Ahmadinejad's last-ditch insurance policy. Without an ally as successor, Ahmadinejad fears he will be cast to the political sidelines. ''Ahmadinejad has no option but to get one of his loyalists into power,'' he said.
It will be more than a month before the candidate list is finalized. The presidential hopefuls will register from May 7-11, the semi-official Fars news agency reported Monday.
Already, however, the general contours are taking shape. There is Ahmadinejad's quest for Mashaei as the only active campaign roadshow. Many conservatives, meanwhile, seem to be coalescing around a three-way alliance all apparently in the good graces of the ruling system of former Foreign Minister and current Khamenei adviser Ali Akbar Velayati; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and prominent lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to Khamenei's son.
''Should we win, our coalition will form the backbone of the future government,'' Velayati told a press conference earlier this month, suggesting that the potential winner would seek key posts for the other two.