Thursday, July 23, 2009

TEHRAN | President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed rare defiance of his strongest backer, Iran’s supreme leader, by insisting on his choice for vice president Wednesday 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 in the wake of 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 - his daughter is married to the president’s son.

Ayatollah Khamenei ordered Mr. Ahmadinejad to remove Mr. Mashai, semiofficial media outlets 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 expected to form next month.

At the center of the dispute between the president and the 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 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 that the president obey Ayatollah Khamenei.

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

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