The Iranian presidential elections are just under six weeks away and although the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is barred from running for a third term, his record is being attacked by a number of candidates. What is even more surprising is that they are attacking him on his policy towards Israel and the Jewish people.
One candidate, Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, criticised Mr Ahmadinejad for offending the Jewish people by denying the Holocaust. He said: “Defending the goals of the Palestinians is part of the principles of our foreign policy. Denying the Holocaust is not part of our foreign policy.”
In an interview with a local news agency last week, Mr Ghalibaf said: “We were never against Judaism; it’s a religion. What we opposed was Zionism.” He said that the Iranian leadership since the 1979 Islamic revolution had been against Israel, not the Jews: “With the wisdom of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, no one could accuse us of being antisemitic. Suddenly, however, without consideration for the results and implications, the issue of the Holocaust was raised. How did this benefit the revolution or the Palestinians? It became an excuse for our biggest enemies, the Zionists, and affected the goals of the Palestinians.”
Another candidate, former speaker of the parliament Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, also criticised Ahmadinejad, saying, “we have not benefited by the denial of the Holocaust”. However, he did not go as far as Mr Ghalibaf — he added that the Holocaust was a matter for historians and that he could not rule on the issue.
Former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a rival of the current leadership who is rumoured to be planning a new bid for the post, said this week that Iran should “repair its foreign policy” and that “we are not at war with Israel”. Although balanced by saying that “if the Arab countries are at war with them, we’ll help them”, the statement was notably different from the usual rhetoric.
How significant is this? There are two reasons to assume that the more moderate noises coming from Tehran do not signal a change in Iranian policy.
First, the chances of either Mr Ghalibaf or Mr Rafsanjani becoming president are rather slim. The Tehran mayor is not a leading candidate and, while Mr Rafsanjani has both the name-recognition and the resources to run a winning campaign, he will almost certainly be blocked from running by the conservative camp loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Ultimately, none of these candidates is opposed to Iran’s twin policies of nuclear development and the spread of its influence throughout the Middle East using radical Shia groups such as Hizbollah.
Furthermore, even if a relatively moderate president were to be elected, he would have little real influence on foreign policy: this area is the near-exclusive preserve of the Supreme Leader, who exercises his will through his own hand-picked representatives and the Revolutionary Guards.
But the new tone being heard in the presidential elections is indicative of one significant development. They express a wider feeling among the public that Ahmadinejad’s belligerence has caused the country severe damage.