The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has known better days.
During his first term as president, between 2005 and 2009, Ahmadinejad underwent a transformation from an anonymous politician to the most widely recognized spokesperson for Iran. He appeared at every public forum, and unleashed verbal attacks against Israel unparalleled in their viciousness. He also publicly denied the Holocaust, time after time. At first, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the support of Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, who made sure that Ahmadinejad was elected to the presidency twice. In the economic sphere, Iran's lower class consistently looked to him to lift them out of their poverty.
But something went wrong toward the end of his current term. His presidency drifted toward symbolizing government intervention in the daily lives of Iranian citizens. Ahmadinejad slowly became identified with oppression and dictatorship. His election for a second term as president in June 2009 was perceived by millions of Iranians as a deceptive fraud and many believed the election was rigged in his favor. He went from beloved to hated, especially among the younger generation in Iran. When protesters shouted "death to the dictator," they were referring to him.
He did nothing to improve Iran's economy, and was blamed for Iran's spiralling inflation and unemployment. Ahmadinejad's status in Iran has been seriously eroded in the past few months.
Important religious leaders, officers in the Revolutionary Guards, senior judiciary figures, members of parliament, and the media have all publicly attacked his policies and style of management. He was forced to fire the head of cultural affairs and his own son-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai, who was also his closest adviser. He was also forced to fire one of his deputies, who was charged with corruption. Ahmadinejad was accused of grooming Rahim-Mashai for the presidency in two years, because he himself will not be eligible for a third term. The move was seen as an attempt by Ahmadinejad to perpetuate his policies and style of government.
Ahmadinejad was harshly criticized in the Iranian parliament when he fired his foreign and intelligence ministers, who were close to Iran's spiritual leader. He was also denounced for trying to take over the position of oil minister, and of merging other government offices. Recently, more than a dozen of his closest supporters were arrested, and many members of parliament have called for his resignation. However, worst of all for Ahmadinejad is his fallout with Iran's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.
Infighting in the Iranian government is nothing new. The Iranian government has a unique structure, where real power is in the hands of the supreme spiritual leader. Under him is the president, who is elected by the public and is chief of the executive branch. This structure is the cause of friction among Iran's leaders. Both supreme spiritual leader and president vie to broaden their scope of power at the expense of the other. Among the five presidents who preceded Ahmadinejad, the first one was sacked and fled to Paris, the second one was murdered in a coordinated attack, and two others are among the leaders of the Iranian opposition. Ahmadinejad has been unpopular since the elections in 2009, and the current regime in Iran has been showing signs of distress since then. Khamenei apparently feels that Ahmadinejad has become a burden and is trying to direct public criticism against him.
For his part, Ahmadinejad, is trying to distance himself from Iran's religious leaders to garner support from Iran's middle class. For now, the two sides have announced a cease-fire. Although Khamenei has the power to sack Ahmadinejad, he may decide to wait for his term to run out in two years. By law, Ahmadinejad will not be able to run for a third term, and Khamenei may opt to let him remain in power till the end of his term, with diminished powers.
Ahmadinejad's fall from grace is both good and bad for Israel. It is always good for Israel when its enemy does not hold a powerful position. In addition, any crack in the Iranian leadership may lead to a more moderate regime. However, even though Ahmadinejad is the one who leads Iran's anti-Israel campaign, Khamenei is definitely no lover of Israel himself.
A point in favor of keeping Ahmadinejad at the helm is that his constant verbal attacks on Israel have made it easier for Israel's public diplomacy bodies to clarify the Iranian threat and keep it fresh in the minds of people throughout the world. In addition, sacking Ahmadinejad would not change Iran's nuclear policies. While it is true that Ahmadinejad loved to have himself photographed at nuclear sites, he was not the one who made decisions regarding Iran's nuclear policies. Iran's religious rulers have already decided, with or without Ahmadinejad, to acquire nuclear arms.
The writer, Col. (Res.) Dr. Efraim Kam, is deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University.