- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday showed rare defiance of his strongest backer, Iran’s supreme leader, by insisting on his choice for vice president, despite vehement opposition from hard-liners that has opened a deep rift in the conservative leadership.

The tussle over the appointment comes at a time when the clerical leadership is facing its strongest challenge in decades following last month’s disputed presidential election.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top concern appears to be keeping the strong support of clerical hard-liners so he can withstand attempts by the more moderate, pro-reform opposition to erode his authority.

Conservative clerics and politicians have denounced Mr. Ahmadinejad’s choice for the post of first vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, because Mr. Mashai said last year that Iranians are friends with Israelis. There are also concerns because Mr. Mashai is a relative of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s — Mr. Mashai’s daughter is married to the president’s son.

Ayatollah Khamenei ordered Mr. Ahmadinejad to remove Mr. Mashai, semiofficial media reported Wednesday.

Arguing for a further chance to make his case, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, “There is a need for time and another opportunity to fully explain my real feelings and assessment about Mr. Mashai.”

The president may be digging in because he fears an attempt by hard-liners to dictate the government he is due to form next month.

At the center of the dispute between the president and supreme leader is Mr. Mashai, a member of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s personal inner circle. Iran has 12 vice presidents, and Mr. Mashai has been serving in one of the slots in charge of tourism and culture. Mr. Ahmadinejad said last week he was elevating Mr. Mashai to the first vice presidency. That is the most important of the 12 because it is in line to succeed the president if he dies, is incapacitated or is removed. The first vice president also leads Cabinet meetings in the president’s absence.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is a member of the hard-line camp, but throughout his first term he had disputes over policy and appointments with fellow conservatives, some of whom accused him of hoarding too much power for close associates rather than spreading it among factions.

Most surprising is Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defiance of Ayatollah Khamenei’s order for Mr. Mashai’s removal. The supreme leader has been the president’s top defender in the election dispute, dismissing opposition claims that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory in the June 12 vote was fraudulent. The opposition says pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was the real winner and calls Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government illegitimate.

Hard-line clerics on Wednesday demanded the president obey Ayatollah Khamenei.

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said whether Mr. Mashai is immediately dismissed “will test Ahmadinejad’s loyalty to the supreme leader.”

“When the exalted supreme leader takes a position explicitly, his statement must be accepted by all means and implemented immediately,” he said, according to the Mehr news agency. “Those who voted for Ahmadinejad because of his loyalty to the supreme leader expect the president to show his obedience … in practice.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad may believe Ayatollah Khamenei’s rejection of Mr. Mashai is not written in stone and is testing whether he can keep his close associate.

Iran expert Suzanne Maloney pointed out that the supreme leader has not spoken publicly on the issue and that reports of his order have been leaked by hard-liners through semiofficial media.

“If Khamenei comes out in Friday prayers calling for (Mashai’s) removal, then it would be difficult to imagine Ahmadinejad would refuse that,” said Ms. Maloney, with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is “not looking to open his second term by picking a fight with his most important ally in the system,” she said.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s order to remove Mr. Mashai is an unusual extension of his powers — perhaps a sign he wants to strengthen his position as unquestioned leader in the face of the reformist threat.

As supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has ultimate say in state affairs and stands at the peak of the unelected clerical leadership that, under Iran’s Islamic Republic, can overrule the elected presidency and parliament.

Traditionally, the supreme leader has stayed out of a public role in government appointments. He is believed often to vet choices informally for senior positions behind the scenes, but he does not have a formal role in approving them or an official power to remove them. Even under Iran’s 1997-2005 pro-reform government, with which Ayatollah Khamenei clashed, he never overtly ousted any of its officials.

Now, Ayatollah Khamenei faces tests to his authority on two fronts. One is from Mr. Ahmadinejad; the other is the open defiance from the reformist opposition, which has continued its campaign against Mr. Ahmadinejad despite the supreme leader’s declarations that the election dispute is over.

Powerful moderate clerics in the religious leadership under Ayatollah Khamenei have backed Mr. Mousavi or declined to recognize Mr. Ahmadinejad as the victor. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators held mass protests in support of Mr. Mousavi in the weeks after the election but were crushed in a heavy crackdown that killed at least 20 protesters and left more than 500 in prison. Still, the opposition has managed to hold two smaller protests since and is demanding a referendum on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy.

The announcement outraged hard-liners, who have opposed Mr. Mashai since he said in 2008 that Iranians were “friends of all people in the world — even Israelis.” Mr. Mashai also angered many top clerics in 2007 when he attended a ceremony in Turkey where women performed a traditional dance and in 2008 when he hosted a ceremony in which women played tambourines. Conservative interpretations of Islam oppose women dancing.

After days of controversy, Ayatollah Khamenei weighed in. The semiofficial Fars news agency reported Wednesday that Mr. Ahmadinejad had been notified of the leader’s order to remove Mr. Mashai.

The deputy parliament speaker, Mohammad Hasan Aboutorabi-Fard, said late Tuesday that Mr. Mashai’s dismissal was “a strategic decision” by the system of ruling clerics and he must be removed “without delay,” according to the semiofficial ISNA news.

Later Wednesday, Mr. Ahmadinejad stuck by Mr. Mashai in a speech at Mr. Mashai’s farewell ceremony from his lower vice presidential post.

“One of virtues and glories God has bestowed to me in life was to get acquainted with this great, honest and pious man,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said, according to the state news agency IRNA. He said he has “a thousand reasons” to support Mr. Mashai and that there was “no convincing” reason for the attacks on his choice.

Ali Akbar Dareini reported from Tehran; Lee Keath, from Cairo.

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