- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

TEHRAN — Iran’s most senior dissident cleric said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive nuclear diplomacy had harmed the country, joining a chorus of criticism that has included even the hard-line leader’s allies.

The comments by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, released yesterday, reflected a growing feeling among many that Mr. Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy.

Ayatollah Montazeri, 85, is one of a few grand ayatollahs, the most senior theologians of the Shi’ite Muslim faith. He had been the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, until he fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini shortly before his 1989 death after complaining about powers wielded by unelected clerics.

He said Iranians have the right to nuclear power, but questioned Mr. Ahmadinejad’s dealings with the international community in obtaining it.

“One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom, not provoke it,” he said, according to a copy of his comments made available to the Associated Press.

“This [provocation] only creates problems for the country,” he told a group of reformists and opponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad on Friday in the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of the capital, Tehran.

In the kind of action that might be described as a “provocation” by the dissident ayatollah, Iran said yesterday it has barred 38 members of a U.N. nuclear-inspection team from entering the country, in what appeared to be retaliation for sanctions imposed last month over its contentious atomic program.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said some inspectors were admitted, but he maintained that Iran could decide who should be turned away.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council imposed limited trade sanctions on Iran because of its refusal to cease uranium enrichment, a process that produces the material for nuclear reactors or bombs. Days later, the country’s parliament passed a motion that obliged the government to revise its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency but gave it a free hand to determine the steps to be taken.

Meanwhile, the prices of fruit, vegetables and food staples have skyrocketed since the U.N. imposed the limited sanctions.

“Some countries don’t have oil and gas. Yet, they run their country and stand on their own. We have so much oil and gas but make useless expenditures work for others and don’t think of our own people’s problems, and the price of basic commodities go higher and higher every day,” Ayatollah Montazeri said.

Ayatollah Montazeri appeared to be referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s foreign trips, the latest of which was to Latin America, and to Iranian financial aid to the Palestinians.

The Palestinian foreign minister for the Hamas-led government said in November while visiting Iran that Tehran had given his government more than $120 million in the previous year.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected last year on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. But he has faced increasingly fierce criticism in recent weeks for his failure to meet those promises.

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