New York Times: In the latest sign of dissension within Iran’s conservative ranks, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new deputy withdrew Friday in response to a letter demanding his removal written by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, state television and news agencies reported.
The New York Times
By ROBERT F. WORTH and NAZILA FATHI
Published: July 24, 2009
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In the latest sign of dissension within Iran’s conservative ranks, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new deputy withdrew Friday in response to a letter demanding his removal written by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, state television and news agencies reported.
The resignation resolved a week of acrimony over the deputy, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who had drawn fierce criticism from hard-liners over comments he made last year that were friendly to Israel. It also underscored the authority within Iran’s Islamic political system of Ayatollah Khamenei, whose handwritten letter — made public by state television on Friday — appeared to have overridden Mr. Ahmadinejad’s persistent refusal to dismiss his trusted deputy.
The dispute may also be a sign that Mr. Ahmadinejad is more vulnerable to conservative rivals in the wake of last month’s disputed presidential election, analysts said.
The existence of Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter was made public several days ago, but Mr. Ahmadinejad refused to back down, despite a withering campaign by conservatives. The criticism peaked on Friday, when hundreds of hard-line students rallied in Tehran to demand Mr. Mashaei’s ouster and a prominent ayatollah chastised Mr. Ahmadinejad for flouting the supreme leader’s wishes.
Finally, Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter was cited in full on state television late Friday, in a gesture apparently meant to force the issue.
The promotion of Mr. Mashaei was “contrary to your interests and the interests of the government, and will be a cause of division and distress among your supporters,” the letter stated. “The appointment must be reversed.”
Even then, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears not to have fired Mr. Mashaei. Instead, a top presidential aide, Mojtaba Samara Hashemi, told the official IRNA news agency that “Mashaei doesn’t consider himself first vice president” in the wake of Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter.
For the past week, Mr. Ahmadinejad has faced a barrage of criticism on two fronts: conservatives angry over the promotion of Mr. Mashaei, and a smoldering opposition movement that continues to organize street protests and to reject his re-election last month as fraudulent. This week Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader who many Iranians believe was the true winner of the June 12 election, announced that he was creating a new political front.
The opposition gained another rallying point on Friday with the news of the death of another protester, this one with links to Iran’s political elite. Mohsen Ruholamini — whose father, Abdolhussen Ruholamini, is an adviser to another presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezai — died in custody at Evin prison after being arrested during demonstrations on July 9, opposition Web sites said, citing relatives.
Mr. Ruholamini’s family had been told that he would be returning home, the Web sites reported. It was not clear how he died. The elder Mr. Ruholamini is a chemistry professor and the head of Iran’s Pasteur Institute. Mr. Rezai, a conservative and a strong critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad, is a former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The news of Mr. Ruholamini’s death is likely to stoke anger further among the opposition, whose leaders say the number killed in protests since the election is much higher than 20, the figure the government provided.
The withdrawal of Mr. Mashaei ends a chapter that surprised and baffled many Iranians. A former culture minister whose daughter is married to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s son, Mr. Mashaei had reportedly said the Iranian people were friends with all other peoples, including Israelis. After a storm of criticism from conservatives, he disavowed his comments, saying he had meant only that Iranians sympathized with those living under the Zionist yoke.
Still, promoting him to presidential deputy was a risky move, especially considering that Mr. Mashaei had made other gestures that angered conservatives, including attending a ceremony in Turkey in 2007 where women performed a traditional dance.
“Maybe Ahmadinejad was trying to bolster his position vis-à-vis these political sharks” in the conservative establishment, who have long been critical of him, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and associate professor at Syracuse University.
In any event, Professor Boroujerdi added, the fierce conservative reaction suggests that “after the election crisis, not only reformists but hard-liners are smelling blood in the water and looking for concessions from Ahmadinejad.”
For Ayatollah Khamenei, the episode may also have been politically useful. He was widely criticized as having acted too quickly to bless Mr. Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory, which many Iranians viewed as fraudulent. Stepping in to force the president’s hand on the Mashaei affair may help to restore his image as a neutral arbiter who is not permanently allied to any particular faction or person, Professor Boroujerdi said.
Even as conservatives condemned Mr. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to dismiss Mr. Mashaei, they maintained their war of words against the opposition and its claims of a stolen election. At a Friday Prayer sermon, a hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, lashed out at both the opposition and the president, accusing protesters of defying Ayatollah Khamenei and saying a conspiracy against the supreme leader had emerged since the election.
Iran’s Assembly of Experts also upbraided the president and his rivals on Friday. Fifty of the Assembly’s 86 members issued a statement, published on the Web site khabaronline, calling on Mr. Ahmadinejad to obey Ayatollah Khamenei and to dismiss Mr. Mashaei.
The statement also called on Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — a former president who heads the Assembly but has the loyalty of only a minority of its members — to bring his language into line with Ayatollah Khamenei’s.
Last Friday Mr. Rafsanjani delivered a sermon in which he spoke of a “crisis” since the election, saying that many Iranians had lost confidence in the government. The speech, which brought vast crowds of opposition supporters into the streets, was a clear challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei, who has declared the election fair and warned protesters to move on.
Robert F. Worth reported from Dubai, and Nazila Fathi from New York.