By Andrew Friedman/TPS
During his time as president of Iran from 2005-2013, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood out largely for his threats to “wipe Israel off the map,” Holocaust denial and publicity actions such as the 2005 International Holocaust Cartoon contest. It isn’t a record that naturally sparks confidence from many Israelis, but a Jerusalem expert says Ahmadinejad’s surprise announcement Wednesday that he would seek a return to the country’s presidency would ironically be “terrific” for Israel.
“Ahmadinejad was one of the worst things for Iran, but ironically he was one of the best things [in Iran] to happen for Israel,” says Dr. Thamar E. Gindin, a linguist and scholar of ancient Persia and modern Iran at Shalem College in Jerusalem and a researcher at Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies. “His extreme positions and statements made us look sane.”
Speaking to TPS by phone about Ahmadinejad’s announcement, Gindin said there is widespread support in Iran for Israel, owing largely to negative feelings in the Islamic Republic about the former president.
“Iran was in a terrible position when Ahmadinejad left office. He left behind a broken, destroyed country that suffered from problematic foreign relations and a deep economic crisis as the result of international sanctions resulting from the nuclear program. He was very, very unpopular following the clashes between government forces and protesters following his re-election in 2009. So there is a lot of mistrust, and most people who oppose the government are pro-Israel. Essentially, they feel that if the government tells them Israel is terrible, the truth must be that Israel is actually pretty good,” she says.
For many reasons, Ahmadinejad’s announcement came as a surprise, inside and outside Iran. Although the constitution does not block a former president from returning to office – a sitting president is limited to two terms – it hasn’t happened before. Add to that equation the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini opposes the candidacy and Ahmadinejad appears to have a tough path to return to the Sa’dabad Complex, the president’s office in Tehran.
There are many reasons [Supreme Leader] Khameini doesn’t want him back,” Gindin said. “He’s a messianist, always talking about what will happen when the 12th Imam returns. He also speaks often about Persian history – a point of pride for many Iranians but something the regime tries as hard as possible to minimize. To them, the pre-Islamic nature of Zoroastrian Persia is badly out of sync with the Islamic country they are trying to maintain.”
On the other hand, Gindin also noted that the anti-government population around the country is far from a solid majority, and that the former president still has a strong base of support amongst many ordinary Iranians. That sets up a potential clash for Khameini, who ultimately will decide the winner of the election and who could be forced to choose between two unappetizing options: The stability of current President Hassan Rouhani, who’s relatively liberal voice has often frustrated the Supreme Leader, and alienating a large number of constituents who view Ahmadinejad’s tough talk as a source of Iranian pride.
“Ultimately, I have no idea what this is really all about,” Gindin says. “He’s not a diplomat, he doesn’t have the support of the Supreme Leader and the last time he was in office he left behind a big mess.
“So I have no idea what this is all about, or what the outcome is going to be. All I can say with confidence is that Ahmadinejad has got a big mouth. That’s bound to keep things interesting.”