Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his withdrawal from politics this week, but questions remain about his likely successor. In a talk with experts on the topic, it seems that the future is not rosy. “Anyone who thinks that the situation will improve from the moment that Ahmadinejad will retire from politics is making a mistake,” says Professor David Menashrim President of the Academic Center of Law and Business in Ramat Gan.
“Next year I will retire from my position as president of Iran,” said Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. “Eight years are enough,” he announced, “I plan to return to engage in science.”
While it may appear that this announcement could have significant implications for the nuclear issue and relations with Israel, Menashri is still not popping open his champagne bottle. “It is not clear if they told him to make such an announcement in order to prove to the world that Iran is becoming less radical, or if he volunteered to make the announcement of his own initiative,” says Menashri. “In any event, it seems that for Israel, this will not cause a great change because policy is set by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and not by the Iranian president. I assume that Ahmadinejad’s successor will be a far less colorful person, someone from Khamenei’s inner-circle of conservatives. The diatribes against us will probably be toned down, but anyone who thinks that the situation in the Iranian capital will improve the moment Ahmadinejad retires from politics is mistaken. The threats against Israel and the denial of the Holocaust did not start with Ahmadinejad and evidently will not end with him. Hostility against Israel will continue — as well as the nuclear program.”
Dr. Ephraim Kam, Deputy Director of the Institute for National Security Studies, believes that the successor of the "man with the coat" may be more moderate in his public statements, “thus Iran may appear somewhat more moderate than it does today, but in effect — very little will change because the one who makes the decisions in Iran is the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad is a lot less important in terms of decision-making; he may create uproars with his statements, but he does not make the important decisions.”
Even though both Menashri and Kam believe that the departure of the present president will not lead to change in policy, the race for the presidential position is not over. ”It is still unclear who will be the successor,” says Dr. Liora Handelman-Baavur, a researcher in Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies. “Potential candidates are expected to step forward in the coming days. We in Israel also didn’t know that Yair Lapid (an Israeli journalist, now the chairman of the "Yesh Atid" party, which he founded in 2012) intended to run in the elections until he announced his political intentions, and the same is true in Iran. It is still too early to know who the other contestants will be, and what will take place in post-Ahmadinejad Iran. In any event, he is not the only one to make decisions; the religious leadership has the main voice. Ali Khamenei is in charge of all the important decisions.” Handelman-Baavur also reminds us that Ahmadinejad was not responsible for the present armament process. “The Iranian nuclear program started before Ahmadinejad, and he is not involved in the [related] decisions,” she notes.
Meir Javedanfar, lecturer on Iran’s current politics in the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and a native-born Iranian, believes that “Ahmadinejad’s influence on the nuclear program is negligible.” He has no influence on security issues, and very little on economic matters as well,” states Javedanfar. “That is the sphere of the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad talks as if he has great influence in Iran, but that is not the case. My guess is that after he steps down from the presidency, he will continue to meddle in Iranian politics. He won’t sit home quietly. He will continue to lambast Israel in statements, he will anger many people, but his influence will be [even] less that it is now.”
Ahmadinejad, 56, married and the father of three, was born in a village near Tehran. When he was one-year-old his parents moved to the capital city where Ahmadinejad later studied engineering in Tehran University; he eventually received his doctorate in transportation systems engineering in 1997. Ahmadinejad was a colonel in the Revolutionary Guard, he was appointed governor of Maku and Khoy, then mayor of Tehran. He was first elected president of Iran in 2005 and four years later he was re-elected for a second term. “Some say that he was less relevant in his second term,” says Dr. Handelman-Baavur. “In fact, there are those foreign observers who call his later years, the 'post-Ahmadinejad era.' His legitimacy plummeted in the second term in the wake of harsh demonstrations and riots of young Iranians that lasted a month’s time. This preceded the ‘Arab Spring.’ Ever since, his position and status have been eroded, we hear about him less, he doesn’t initiate things, he only talks.”
In the eight years of his tenure, Ahmadinejad has verbally attacked and threatened Israel numerous times. He has called Israel “nothing more than a mosquito,” “the most hated regime in the world, comprising criminals with undeveloped brains,” he branded Israel as a “malignant cancer cell” and claimed that the “Zionist regime sacrifices the honor and cultures of the countries of the world on behalf of its survival and victory;” Ahmadinejad announced that the “world will soon view the full annihilation of Israel”; in one of his speeches he called Israel “the wild dog of the United States,” as well as “a disgraceful blot [that "must be wiped off the map."] He also accused “the Zionist entity” of developing, and disseminating, diseases in order to profit from selling medications. He called the disengagement [Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip] “a shameful trick,” asserted that the Holocaust is a “myth,” and suggested “moving” the State of Israel to Europe or North America.
Yet the [inflammatory] statements that aroused international attention do not reflect Ahmadinejad’s status within Iran; in fact, his position had become increasingly weakened in recent years. “His withdrawal from politics was expected,” says Handelman-Baavur. “He has served two terms and, according to Iranian law, a president cannot be elected for a third term. In any event, his status has declined. He tried to appoint ministers who were not to the liking of the conservative faction.”
Others claim that Ahmadinejad does not want to disappear from the political arena. “There were rumors that he would try to put forward his own candidate to run for the presidency, as Putin did in Russia, or that he would try to invent the position of Prime Minister for himself (a position that does not currently exist in Iran) in order to remain in power,” says Kam. “But I don’t think this possibility really exists. Today there is a rift between him and the religious leadership, and Ahmadinejad no longer plays an important role in the political leadership of Iran. He no longer makes decisions. Ahmadinejad attracts attention, but is almost an irrelevant figure within Iran today.”
The recent year has been very difficult for Ahmadinejad. Three months ago, his political rival Ali Larijani was elected to another term of office as chairman of the Parliament of Iran, while most of Ahmadinejad’s candidates were not elected to the session. It was a severe defeat and most commentators in Iran belittled him. That was only the beginning of the humiliation: more recently, Ahmadinejad was summoned to a hearing in Parliament regarding political and economic irregularities. He was asked to explain why he was not successful in halting rising unemployment, and asked about financial irregularities to the tune of two billion dollars in the management of Tehran’s railway system. In addition, he was accused of not being faithful to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“It is not clear what will be Ahmadinejad’s approach to the Revolutionary Guards in the coming year,” says Javedanfar. “If he will challenge them, he is likely to endanger his political status even more. After his current term ends, his influence—which is already waning—will be almost nonexistent.”
And in fact, his relationship with Khamenei has reached a nadir. “In the last three years Ahmadinejad destroyed his relationship with the Supreme Leader, and if not for [traditional] Iranian manners he would have found himself out in the cold long ago, as happens in [power-struggles in] ultra-Orthodox circles in Israel,” says Professor Menashri. “They will try to portray Ahmadinejad’s retirement as a change in policy. Evidently, they want to be viewed as a less-radical regime.”
“Nevertheless, we can be sure that the next president will not be a great lover of Zion, although his personality may tend to fewer and less intense diatribes against Israel. The new president will emerge from the conservative circles, will strengthen Khamenei’s status and perhaps avoid expressing his opinions at every opportunity, unlike Ahmadinejad. Yet the next President will not herald change, certainly not change with regards to policy regarding Israel. Friends who heard the news about Ahmadinejad’s anticipated retirement called me happily and told me, Now peace will come to Israel. I tend to doubt that will happen. Holocaust denial and threats on Israel—those will continue afterwards as well.”
“In the end, Iranian policy will not be affected by Ahmadinejad’s departure,” says Raz Zimmt, a researcher in the Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University. “The citizens vote for candidates that have all been approved by the regime. That means that the elected candidate will have the backing of the regime and is not someone who can do whatever he wants. Ahmadinejad’s departure does not herald a big change.”