Reuters: Pressure mounted on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at home and abroad on Tuesday as his government’s disputes with the West deepened.
By Angus MacSwan
LONDON (Reuters) – Pressure mounted on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at home and abroad on Tuesday as his government’s disputes with the West deepened.
Veteran politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani criticised Ahmadinejad for failing to counter the impact of economic sanctions, the latest sign of division in Iran’s ruling elite.
Rafsanjani’s words came on top of accusations by the head of the U.N. nuclear agency that Iranian authorities were hampering its work monitoring Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Adding to the negatives for Ahmadinejad, a diplomat from the Iranian embassy in Belgium announced he was seeking asylum in Norway. He was the second Iranian foreign service official to jump ship and join the exiled opposition this week.
The president showed signs of overcoming some internal rivals, however, when Iran released one of three Americans it had detained on spying charges.
Sarah Shourd, one of three Americans held in Iran for more than a year on suspicion of spying, left the country on Tuesday after she was released on bail, a diplomatic source in Iran and a Swiss ministry spokesman said.
Officials said last week Shourd would be freed on Saturday, after what Iranian media said had been Ahmadinejad’s personal intervention. Iran’s judiciary then unexpectedly blocked her release, saying the legal process had not been completed.
Divisions within the ruling elite have become increasingly evident in recent months as opposition protests over Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June 2009 have died down.
The criticism from Rafsanjani, who has expressed sympathies with Iran’s reformist movement, followed similar comments from hardliners in parliament and the judiciary.
Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “These cracks were there a year ago, they remained. They are now more visible and more apparent.”
Rafsanjani, head of a powerful clerical body, said the Islamic Republic was under unprecedented global pressure and the government was wrong to dismiss the sanctions as no threat.
He did not name the president, who has called the sanctions “pathetic” and no more effective than a “used handkerchief”.
But in an address to a clerical assembly meeting, he said: “Gentlemen, you should be vigilant and careful. Do not downplay the sanctions…people should not be tricked.”
Led by Washington, the new sanctions target financial services and the energy sector, hitting Iran’s ability to import gasoline and secure foreign investment.
They are aimed at pressuring Tehran to curb its nuclear activities, which the West fears might be aimed at making a bomb. Iran says its atomic ambitions are purely peaceful.
“We continue to believe that the pressure track, both diplomatic and economic sanctions, still have the potential to persuade the Iranians to come to terms and end their efforts to get nuclear weapons,” U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
In a sign of worsening relations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), its director general Yukiya Amano said on Monday that Iran had not cooperated enough for the agency to confirm that its nuclear material was for peaceful activities.
The Japanese diplomat, who has taken a tougher approach on Iran than his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, also said in a speech to the IAEA’s board that Iran was hampering the U.N. body’s work by refusing to admit some inspectors.
Iran says two inspectors it barred in June had provided “false” information about its nuclear programme.
The head of Iran’s nuclear energy, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Amano had made a “big mistake” that was very dangerous.
Salehi, who is expected to attend the IAEA’s annual assembly in Vienna next week, said Amano was not acting within the agency regulations and was not objective.
Amano’s latest report on Iran showed it was pushing ahead with its nuclear work in defiance of tougher sanctions.
In Oslo, a diplomat from the embassy in Belgium said he was seeking asylum in Norway because of electoral and human rights abuses in Iran. Farzad Farhangian called for Ahmadinejad’s overthrow at a news conference at which he was accompanied by a former Iranian consul in Norway who defected in January.
Farhangian said he was putting his weight behind a group called “Green Embassy” composed of exiled Iranian diplomats.
A day earlier, a senior official at Iran’s embassy in Helsinki said he would seek political asylum in Finland.
Ahmadinejad has also angered hardliners by appointing four close allies to new foreign policy posts, sidelining the Foreign Ministry and snubbing calls to sack his controversial chief of staff whom he made Middle East envoy.
Analyst Gala Riani at IHS Global Insight said the resignations were very embarrassing for the government.
“The regime is becoming so openly repressive that individuals who have spent years and decades in its service are abandoning ship.”