Iran General NewsIran leader backs president before election

Iran leader backs president before election

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ImageReuters: Iran's supreme leader has told Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to prepare for a second four-year presidential term, comments seen by some as a riposte to the president's critics before next year's election, media reported.

By Edmund Blair

ImageTEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran's supreme leader has told Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to prepare for a second four-year presidential term, comments seen by some as a riposte to the president's critics before next year's election, media reported.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised the president in the past, including shortly before a parliamentary vote in March when Ahmadinejad's supporters fared poorly. But the latest remarks are some of the most supportive yet.

"Do not think that this year is your final year," Khamenei told a meeting with the cabinet on Saturday, the official IRNA news agency reported.

"Work as if you will stay in charge for five years. In other words, imagine that in addition to this year, another four years will be under your management, and plan and act accordingly."

Ahmadinejad has faced mounting criticism from the public and pro-reform opponents, particularly over his handling of the economy and rising inflation, which has hit about 26 percent. Price rises are the biggest gripe for many ordinary Iranians.

Khamenei has told Ahmadinejad's government to control inflation.

Analysts say the economy will be a major battleground, if as expected, Ahmadinejad seeks a second term in 2009.

But analysts also say much will depend on Ahmadinejad's ability to keep the support of Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure whose opinion is highly valued by voters who consider themselves loyalists to the ruling system.

Conservatives have seized on Khamenei's remarks.

"Everyone has a duty to support a government which has come to power by a majority vote of the people and has been approved by the supreme leader," conservative lawmaker Asadollah Badamchian was quoted as saying by the Kayhan daily.

Another lawmaker, Ruhollah Hosseinian, said: "What the government had achieved in the past three years caused satisfaction for the supreme leader."

The hardline Kayhan newspaper headline described Khamenei's comments as a "conclusive statement" backing the government.

POLARISING FIGURE

Political groups are preparing for the 2009 race, usually held around the middle of the year.

But some conservatives, who call themselves 'principlists' to show their loyalty to revolutionary ideals, say their camp remains divided because ultra-conservatives back Ahmadinejad while more moderate figures are wary of his fiery speeches.

Ahmadinejad has proved a polarising figure in Iranian politics, with some conservatives joining reformists critics in saying his uncompromising approach in a nuclear row with the West has further isolated Iran.

The West accuses Tehran of seeking to build atomic weapons despite Iranian denials. Iran's failure to convince world powers of its peaceful intentions has led to three sets of U.N. sanctions.

Ultimately, nuclear policy is determined by Khamenei, who has praised Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear file.

Pro-reform candidates, who seek social and political change, have called for more diplomacy to engage the West and have also accused Ahmadinejad of squandering Iran's oil revenue windfall in his bid to fulfil a promise to share out wealth more fairly.

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost a run- off vote to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 race, regularly criticises the government though he tends not to name the president.

In a sermon on Friday, the mid-ranking cleric, president for eight years after the 1980-88 war with Iraq, said even when the economy was damaged by war "we did not have any basic problems".

He was referring to a spate of summer power and water cuts across the country, partly a result of drought but also a failure to keep infrastructure growing with the population.

(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari, editing by Mary Gabriel)

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