- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

TEHRAN | Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, already at the center of a post-election crisis, came under criticism from his own hard-line supporters Sunday for appointing as his first vice president a man who once caused an outcry by saying Iranians were friends of Israelis.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has been under siege by opposition supporters who claim he stole last month’s election from pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The latest criticism was a reminder that while hard-liners have supported Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, they often criticized him before the vote, especially over his handling of Iran’s economy.

The disagreements among hard-liners had been set aside since the June 12 election as they faced hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters who protested in the streets over what they said was massive vote fraud.

Authorities have cracked down violently and have arrested hundreds, including Iranian employees of the British Embassy. Iran released the embassy’s chief political analyst on bail Sunday after charging him with harming national security for purported involvement in the protests, the man’s attorney said.

Police arrested 40 people Friday after they clashed with thousands of protesters in the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Sunday. Some of those arrested were eventually released, it said.

The clashes followed a sermon by one of Iran’s most powerful clerics, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who criticized the government’s response to the election dispute.

Mr. Ahmadinejad on Friday appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, his son’s father-in-law, as his first vice president. Mr. Mashai angered hard-liners in 2008 when he said Iranians were “friends of all people in the world — even Israelis.”

Mr. Mashai was serving as vice president in charge of tourism and cultural heritage at the time. Iran has 12 vice presidents, but the first vice president is the most important because he leads Cabinet meetings in the absence of the president.

Hossein Shariatmadari, an aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and editor of hard-line Kayhan newspaper, said Sunday that Mr. Mashai’s appointment caused “a wave of surprise mixed with regret and concern” among Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters. “Many of the closest individuals to the president strongly oppose the appointment.”

Most hard-liners consider Israel to be Iran’s archenemy, and Mr. Ahmadinejad himself has repeatedly called for the Jewish state’s destruction.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who has supported Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, called Mr. Mashai’s comments about Israelis “illogical” shortly after he made them, but urged critics to abandon their call for the president to fire his relative.

Mr. Mashai also angered many of Iran’s top clerics in 2007 when he attended a ceremony in Turkey, where women performed a traditional dance. Hard-line interpretations of Islam prohibit women from dancing.

He ran into trouble again in 2008 when he hosted a ceremony in Tehran in which several women played tambourines while another one carried the Koran to a podium to recite verses from the Muslim holy book. Hard-liners viewed the festive mood as disrespectful to the Koran.

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