Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during parliamentary runoff elections
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, talks, as his wife Azam al-Sadat Farahi, fills in her ballot during the parliamentary runoff elections in a polling station in Tehran, Iran, May 4, 2012. Photo by AP
Text size

The latest reports of further gains by the conservative parties in the second round of parliamentary elections that took place in Iran on Friday give the impression that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not belong to the conservative camp, and that he may even be a reformist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is little, if any, ideological distinction between the handful of remaining Ahmadinejad allies still sitting in the Majles and his opponents now dominating the chamber. They are all uniformly conservative. The current makeup of the Iranian parliament simply provides Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - who had a falling out with Ahmadinejad last year - more control of the political system. Khamenei, who supported the populist president in the 2005 and 2009 elections, ensuring his victory, objected to his excessive independence and is now restructuring the power hierarchy in Tehran, giving much more influence to factions aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and clerical circles.

As he enters his eighth and last year of presidency, Ahmadinejad will continue to appear on our television screens, meeting with the world leaders who care to be seen in his company. But he is gradually becoming an irrelevant figure. His insignificance was further emphasized at the P5+1 talks last month in Istanbul when it emerged that Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is now acting as Khamenei's personal representative. On Saturday, a parliamentary committee rejected a plan by Ahmadinejad's government to reduce food and gas subsidies, a step necessary to somehow balance the state budget but one that will be deeply unpopular among the Iranian masses. This is the cornerstone of Ahmadinejad's fiscal policy and it would never have been overturned without express instruction from the Supreme Leader.

Over the past seven years, Ahmadinejad served as the principal hate figure, symbolizing in the west Iran's evil machinations. As he is being forced upon a long farewell, it is time to question if he ever was as powerful as he was portrayed to be.

Meanwhile in other elections far far away, I asked here last week how long it would take for Kadima's leader, Shaul Mofaz, to depart from his commitment to running a campaign based on social and financial issues, to instead attacking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on their handling of the Iranian issue. This morning, at his first elections press-conference, Mofaz already had both options for attack on the table. After lambasting the government for failing on all the conventional issues, he launched another salvo.

"I want to say that I am worried about the way the Iranian nuclear problem is being handled. The Netanyahu-Barak couple is sabotaging the strategic bond between Israel and the United States and thus endangering the ability to deal with the nuclear program. Netanyahu preferred [the West Bank settlement of] Yitzhar over Natanz, [right-winger Moshe] Feiglin over an international coalition and Migron over the future, peace and security of the loyal Israeli majority."

Mofaz is criticizing Netanyahu and Barak over Iran from a different angle than former security chiefs have done over the recent weeks. He is not blaming them for over-exaggerating the threat and the need for an Israeli strike; he is politicizing the issue. Mofaz, who 35 years ago was among the founders of the settlement Elkana, is creating a link between the Iranian and Palestinian issues, claiming that Netanyahu's repeated capitulations to the far-right and settlers harm Israel's position on Iran.

This is a surprising ploy by Mofaz, blaming Netanyahu and the settlers together for jeopardizing Israel strategically. His objectives are clear: to convince centrist voters that the prime minister is beholden to the fanatics and that for all his talk about confronting Iran, his first priority is ensuring his political survival. It seems like Iran is set to be a central issue in the elections.