Ahmadinejad's popularity crumbling, says Israeli expert

Results from the first major elections in Iran since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ascent to the presidency in June 2005 came trickling in this week, and according to one of Israel's leading experts on Iran, Menashe Amir, they show a crumbling of support for the populist president. Across the country, those loyal to Ahmadinejad won less than 20 percent of local council seats, and only three of the 15 seats on the Teheran city council. Those most closely identified with him fared poorly, too, in elections for the Assembly of Experts that has the power to choose or oust Iran's supreme spiritual leader. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Amir, who heads Israeli Radio's Persian broadcasts, stressed that the poor showing would have no immediate impact on Iranian policy, including the zealous pursuit of a nuclear capability, nor would it hamstring Ahmadinejad's relentless verbal assaults on Israel and anti-Semitic politics such as convening this month's Holocaust denial parley. "Ahmadinejad articulated correctly before the elections that his policies will be unaffected by the local council elections," Amir said. Nonetheless, Amir read the results as an expression of dissatisfaction with aspects of Ahmadinejad's presidency, including the focus on world affairs at the perceived expense of local concerns at a time of high unemployment and deep poverty in Iran - issues he had pledged to address as president. "Iranians are clearly saying that they are discontented with Ahmadinejad's actions over the last 14 or 15 months," Amir said. The strong showing in the Assembly of Experts vote for the man he defeated as president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Amir added, showed that Ahmadinejad's defeated rival still has strong influence. Rafsanjani far outscored Ayatollah Mohammed Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor," he said. Mesbah-Yazdi "lost serious ground in these elections," said Amir. That Rafsanjani won almost double the number of votes as Mesbah-Yazdi, he added, "is the most important result of the election - a clear expression of dissatisfaction with the current government policy." Although Amir was adamant that the performances of rivals within the regime would have no likely impact on Iranian leadership attitudes to Israel, he was equally adamant that the tallies constituted evidence of the president's collapsing popularity. Reservations about his policies were growing, he said. One sign of this was that a major Iranian media outlet had this week published articles online criticizing Ahmadinejad over the Holocaust denial conference.