Sari, Iran – In a village in northern Iran, a truck driver and three other men struggle to tow a truck on a muddy road, like trainers pulling a giant elephant from a slippery riverbank.
The path had been dug by construction workers all the way from the main road, stretching out of the city of Sari, capital of Mazandaran province, to extend a gas pipeline to their village.
Until the project is finished, villagers will have to make do with LPG canisters for cooking and charcoal to keep their houses warm during winter in this mountainous outpost.
For now, though, the national gas network project does little to bring a sense of financial security for the truck driver and his community, as construction was done by outsiders.
“We don’t need gas. We need jobs. We need welfare,” he told Al Jazeera, pushing the gas pedal of his tow truck.
Most here voted for President Hassan Rouhani when he ran for re-election in 2017 and the one before that in 2013, when the centrist candidate replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
With Rouhani’s promise of reform and economic growth showing little to no progress, however, the truck driver is feeling nostalgic about Ahmadinejad.
“Ahmadinejad paid us monthly cash which covered part of our costs. He gave us loans to restore our houses or build new ones.”
During the eight years of Ahmadinejad, Iran’s oil revenues reached a whopping $700bn, and the government was awash in cash, allowing him to dole out $15 welfare cheques every month to poor people.
Rouhani still pays cash to low-income families. But with sharp inflation and high unemployment, the welfare payments have lost their purchasing power.
The Rouhani administration also said the oil money was wasted on corruption and flawed economic policies during Ahmadinejad’s two terms from 2005 to 2013.
But whatever nostalgia Iranians may have about Ahmadinejad is misplaced, according to Abbas Abdi, a political analyst close to the reformists.
“This has more to do with concerns about the current economic situation than the performance of this particular politician [Ahmadinejad],” Abdi told Al Jazeera.
Inflation exceeded 30 percent during Ahmadinejad’s last few months while the unemployment rate reached 12.2 percent in 2012.
Then in 2017, amid the backdrop of calls for more reform, Ahmadinejad tried to make a comeback, banking on support from the country’s lower class to run for the presidency. But he and his former deputy, Hamid Baqaei, were both disqualified by the Guardian Council.
After the latest wave of protests erupted in December and January, the populist former president has once again transformed himself into a critic of the country’s ruling elite.
In a letter addressed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and published on February 21, Ahmadinejad called for a new round of presidential and parliamentary elections.
He said it should be free from interference by the military and security forces, as well as the Guardian Council, which vets candidates and oversees elections.
Ahmadinejad also demanded “urgent fundamental reforms” in the Supreme Leader’s office as well as the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
He asked Khamenei that Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, the head of the judiciary since 2009, be replaced, and that an independent body be created to address complaints against the judiciary.
Abdi, the analyst close to the reformists, said Ahmadinejad’s motivation is “unclear”, but he was always known to seek attention during his terms in office.
Hamidreza Moqaddamfar, an advisor to the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also dismissed Ahmadinejad’s complaints, saying he has “no legal basis” and adding the demands could amount to sedition.
Ahmadinejad once enjoyed a close relationship with Khamenei, but the two had a falling out during his second term.
In late-December, in a thinly veiled remark aimed at the former president, Khamenei censured “those who used to hold all administrational means” for changing their roles to an opposition regime.
Still, Ahmadinejad continued his criticism, riding on a wave of public outrage that led to nationwide protests in December and January, which left 25 people dead and thousands more detained.
Recently, he also criticised the treatment of political prisoners, referring to a recent suicide in prison without mentioning any name.
‘Same old rhetoric’
But during his presidency, Ahmadinejad had also been accused of being responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of protesters and opposition politicians following the 2009 elections, in which his re-election was questioned as illegitimate.
Ahmadinejad was the Guardian Council’s favourite in 2009, when fraud claims ignited the country’s largest protests since 1979. That same council disqualified him to run as president in 2017.
Despite his sharp criticism of the government recently, Ahmadinejad has managed to avoid the fate of other politicians.
Analysts said he remains close to some in the conservative factions and arresting him now would be a mistake.
Abdi also said Ahmadinejad does not pose a threat to the Rouhani government, because he has low public support.
Two opposition candidates who ran against him in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karoubi, remain under house arrest more than seven years later.
Rouhani’s 2013 win, many analysts believe, was a reaction to the Ahmadinejad presidency.
But since then, Rouhani has made little progress on political and economic reforms.
The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers has also failed, so far, to bring the expected economic benefit to ordinary Iranians, observers say.
Those failures have allowed Ahmadinejad to re-emerge and present himself as a new government critic, but with the same old populist rhetoric.
Still, analysts said Ahmadinejad would be unable to restore his image among many of the country’s voters.
“Neither does he have the intellectual capacity needed to reach that end, nor people surrounding him are at that level to represent the majority of Iran’s middle class,” Abdi said.