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 favored 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 longshot 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 said seeks to undermine Islamic rule in Iran and elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia. The smear campaign has even included rumors 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.
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 in Geneva. ‘‘He wants his legacy, his man, as his successor.’’