BEIRUT — Reports about the health of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have stirred speculation about whether the controversial populist will run again for the country's highest elected office next June.
In an interview published late Saturday by Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, a close associate of Ahmadinejad said the president had fallen sick because of overwork and exhaustion.
"Every human being can face exhaustion under such a workload," lawmaker Mohammed Ismail Kowsari, an ally of Ahmadinejad, said. "The president will eventually get well and continue his job."
The exuberant and media-hungry Ahmadinejad, who turns 53 today, told a reporter in an interview aired Sunday night on state television that he was not ill. "Exhaustion is possible, but no illness," he said in remarks reported by the Associated Press.
Ahmadinejad missed several public appearances last week, though he appeared at several low-key events over the weekend.
The absences have prompted whispers that Ahmadinejad is on his way out. But Kowsari and others close to Ahmadinejad have accused his critics of trying to use what they say is a routine illness for political advantage.
Observers in Tehran cautioned against reading too much into news of the illness. Although Ahmadinejad is said to suffer from low blood pressure, there is no evidence that he has serious health problems or that he is being nudged out of his post by the country's religious leadership.
But the episode shows how openly the knives are out for Ahmadinejad within Iran's ruling circle. On Saturday, parliament moved to impeach pro-Ahmadinejad Interior Minister Ali Kordan, who, according to Iran's Fars News Agency, admitted submitting a fake honorary Oxford law degree as evidence of his qualifications for the job.
Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric and passion for public attention have made him a lightning rod for Western criticism of Iran's nuclear program and its staunch opposition to Israel. However, both policies remain under the purview of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ranking cleric who is the country's ultimate authority on security and foreign policy.
A group of conservative politicians has joined with a more liberal faction known as reformists to criticize Ahmadinejad's economic policies and brash style as against Iran's interests. Iran's official inflation rate has risen to 29%. Its unemployment rate tops 10%, although independent experts say it is higher.
Ahmadinejad's allies have been walloped by the so-called pragmatic conservatives in recent local and parliamentary elections.
Some Iranians and Western diplomats have expressed hope that former President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, will run against Ahmadinejad next year. Khatami's supporters say he will consider running for office only if Ahmadinejad does not stack the deck by handing out government cash to would-be voters.
Critics have accused the president of giving out low-interest loans and launching flashy public-works projects to curry favor with uneducated rural voters.