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Iran's top cleric pushes Ahmadinejad on aide

A split within the hard-line faction appears to widen as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei releases a letter telling the president to fire a top aide whom conservatives have accused of terrorist ties.

July 25, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — A dispute among Iran's conservatives escalated Friday as the supreme leader made public a handwritten note ordering President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to remove a vice president.

Meanwhile, First Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei faced new accusations that he and his wife supported an outlawed terrorist group.

His removal also was demanded in a Friday sermon by hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami.

The same Basiji militiamen who recently pummeled antigovernment demonstrators themselves marched through the streets protesting the controversial choice of Mashaei.

Ahmadinejad's camp showed signs of buckling to the pressure.

Mashaei has said he no longer considers himself the first vice president since the letter by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was disclosed, according to a statement late Friday by a presidential advisor that was posted on news websites.

The advisor, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, quoted Mashaei as saying, "In the face of this decree, I don't believe myself to be the first vice president."

But Ahmadinejad did not give any indication that he had accepted the decision.

The weeklong campaign against Mashaei has been an added challenge for Ahmadinejad, already under pressure from reformists who consider his reelection in June a fraud.

According to Khamenei's website, his July 18 letter to Ahmadinejad describes Mashaei's appointment as "contrary to your own and your government's interests."

"You are requested to reverse this appointment," it says.

Meanwhile, the family of a prominent scholar mourned the death of his son at Tehran's Evin Prison. Mohsen Ruholamini, 25, whose father was an aide to Mohsen Rezai, a prominent conservative politician, was detained during the unrest after the election. His death kept a spotlight on the conduct of security forces and uniformed militiamen while complicating hard-liners' efforts to paint the demonstrators as foreign dupes.

Questions surround the Mashaei controversy.

Some analysts have said hard-liners oppose him because of friendly comments he made last year about Israel. Others say he is a member of a secretive sect, the Hojjatieh, which has a messianic worldview so extreme that the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had outlawed it. A video posted online shows Mashaei making a speech in line with Hojjatieh philosophy.

According to Islamic Republic News Agency reports, Ahmadinejad has described Mashaei as a "pious man who is a devotee of Imam Mahdi," a Shiite saint whose return is awaited by believers.

Several weeks before the June 12 presidential election, Rezai said Ahmadinejad was "surrounded by dangerous individuals" pushing the country toward a precipice. Many considered that to be a jab at the messianic bent of some in his inner circle.

Others describe Mashaei, born in 1960 in the Caspian Sea town of Ramsar, as an opportunist who has parlayed his longtime friendship with Ahmadinejad, an in-law, into a position of power.

Several sources say the two men met in the 1980s while serving in the Revolutionary Guard. Mashaei cultivated strong ties to the intelligence and propaganda divisions of the Revolutionary Guard, as well as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, where he served in the 1990s. In 2004, Ahmadinejad named him to a position within the Tehran municipality.

Publicly, conservatives say they despise Mashaei for his comments about Israel. He was quoted by the semiofficial Fars news agency as saying in a July interview last year that, despite the conflict between the governments, "Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people. No nation in the world is our enemy."

He has since strenuously disavowed the comments.

On Friday, a news website quoted Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf as accusing Mashaei and his wife of supporting the Mujahedin Khalq, an outlawed Iranian exile group that seeks to overthrow the government and that the United States considers a terrorist group.

Qalibaf said Mashaei's wife is a former member of the group and the two met in prison, where he was her interrogator. A source close to the Mashaei family confirmed that, saying that she had been sentenced to hang when he proposed to marry her to save her from the gallows.

In addition to the infighting, the hard-liner camp continues to come under attack by reformists.

Ayatollah Assadollah Bayat Zanjani, a supporter of Ahmadinejad's political rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, issued a stern warning to conservatives.

"Dominance and authority do not grant any legitimacy, which depends on public confidence," he said in a statement. "I warn the authorities to be afraid of divine vengeance and take lessons from the fate of the former Soviet Union."

The treatment of protesters detained or injured during the demonstrations continue to energize the opposition. Ruholamini, a computer science engineer, was arrested July 9, reportedly during a protest. His family was informed Tuesday night that he had died in prison.

His father, Abdul-Hossein Ruholamini, was a senior advisor to Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guard commander who ran as a conservative against Ahmadinejad.

On Thursday police arrested the father of Massoud Hashemzadeh, a 27-year-old musician killed in the unrest, after his family insisted on placing mourning banners outside their home.

The mother of another young man killed during the demonstrations, Sohrab Aarabi, addressed the Tehran City Council this week. Her speech was recorded and the video posted online.

"I still can't eat," Parvin Fahimi told the council. "My throat clenches up, and I've only sustained myself with liquids these recent times.

"Why did they kill my child?" she demanded. "On whose orders? I want to ask the City Council, what did Sohrab want . . . other than freedom of expression?"

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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