Thursday, March 15, 2007

TEHRAN — A leading cleric and close associate of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has joined critics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is coming under increasing criticism from Iran’s political and religious authorities.

Ayatollah Yousef Sanei broke his silence last week to criticize Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government for unnecessarily spurring international enmity toward the Islamic republic.

“We must bear in mind that not everyone is our enemy,” Ayatollah Sanei told the Kargozaran newspaper, employing the elliptical criticism favored by senior Shi’ite clergy when making a political intervention.

“Undue enmity with enemies does not serve the interests of the system. Enemies must be dealt with wisely and prudently,” the ayatollah said.

It is an article of faith here that the United States is a sworn enemy of the Iranian revolution, and opponents of the government are often discredited by being accused of being in the pay of the U.S. or other foreign powers.

Authorities arrested 31 female activists earlier this month after accusing the human rights organizations to which they belong of having received funds from Washington.

Lately, however, discontent is being voiced by those with unquestionable “revolutionary” credentials.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and still highly influential politician, openly declared at a February press conference that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “trial period is over.”

He said he would use his position as head of the expediency council, a state body empowered to oversee government performance, to reshape the government’s economic policies.

“Rafsanjani now represents more or less the Iranian clergy … whose power is weakened because of the increase in the influence of military organizations during Ahmadinejad’s presidency,” said Hossein Bastani, a prominent journalist now living in exile in France.

Iran’s economy has been characterized by rising inflation and massive state spending subsidized through repeated appropriations from its Oil Stabilization Fund. Withdrawals from the fund topped $20 billion in the current Iranian year that ends March 21.

Ordinary Iranians are bracing themselves for a fresh round of belt tightening with the government set to impose gasoline rationing coupled with sharp rises in pump prices.

The rationing system will limit Iranians to 22 gallons of gasoline a month, less than two tanks for a typical family car. The basic price of gas will rise by 25 percent, but Iranians who need to use more than the permitted amount will be hit by rises of more than 200 percent, the London Sunday Telegraph reported.

Mr. Rafsanjani made economic reform a keynote of his unsuccessful presidential campaign against Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 and has seen his popularity rise as the economy declines.

“Is he making a bid to be dealt into decision-making, or to supplant Ahmadinejad as the chief influence on the government, or to have Ahmadinejad removed before the expiry of his term,” asked a former EU ambassador to Tehran, referring to Mr. Rafsanjani. “I suspect it’s the first of these.”

The Ahmadinejad administration came under further pressure on March 5 when a Web site owned by a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps reported on “a security group which is linked to the government and works outside the Intelligence Ministry.

“The existence of this group not only weakens the position of the Intelligence Ministry, but it also imposes serious costs on our political system,” the Web site said.

The source of the article did not identify the allegiances of the intelligence unit but asserted that its activities included “intervention in judicial cases, visits abroad by political and religious figures.”

The source also said the unit had “interfered in economic cases and threatened certain political and media figures.”

Graham Fuller, the former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, said, “The upper echelons of the state want to cut back Mr. Ahmadinejad’s powers, but it’s not easy and can’t be done overnight. There’s a clear recognition that he has made too many enemies and abandoned the smarter previous policies of seeking to divide the EU from the U.S. and not unite them, as [Mr. Ahmadinejad] has done.”

Unelected clerics led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hold ultimate authority in Iran.

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