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In Iran, president’s deputy quits amid hard-line pressure

Senior Iranian hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami delivered the weekly Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University yesterday. Esfandiar Rahim Mashai was the main topic. Senior Iranian hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami delivered the weekly Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University yesterday. Esfandiar Rahim Mashai was the main topic. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
By Robert F. Worth and Nazila Fathi
New York Times / July 25, 2009

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - In the latest sign of dissension within Iran’s conservative ranks, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial new deputy withdrew yesterday in response to a letter demanding his removal written by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, state television and news agencies reported.

The resignation resolved a week of acrimony over the deputy, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who had drawn fierce criticism from hard-liners over comments he made last year that were friendly to Israel. It also underscored the authority within Iran’s Islamic political system of Khamenei, whose handwritten letter - made public by state television yesterday - appears to have overridden Ahmadinejad’s persistent refusal to dismiss his trusted deputy.

The dispute may also be a sign that Ahmadinejad is more vulnerable to conservative rivals after last month’s disputed presidential election, analysts said.

The existence of Khamenei’s letter was made public several days ago, but Ahmadinejad refused to back down, despite a withering campaign by conservatives. The criticism reached a crescendo yesterday, when hundreds of hard-line students rallied in Tehran to demand Mashaei’s ouster and a prominent ayatollah chastised Ahmadinejad for flouting the supreme leader’s wishes.

Finally, Khamenei’s letter was cited in full on state television late yesterday, in a gesture apparently meant to force the issue.

The promotion of Mashaei was “contrary to your interests and the interests of the government, and will be a cause of division and distress among your supporters,’’ the letter stated. “The appointment must be reversed.’’

Even then, Ahmadinejad appears not to have fired Mashaei. Instead, a top presidential aide, Mojtaba Samara Hashemi, told the official IRNA news agency that “Mashaei doesn’t consider himself first vice president’’ after Khamenei’s letter.

For the past week, Ahmadinejad has faced a barrage of criticism on two fronts: conservatives angry over the promotion of Mashaei, and a smoldering opposition movement that continues to organize street protests and to reject his reelection last month as fraudulent. This week Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader who many Iranians believe was the true winner of the June 12 election, announced that he was creating a new political front.

The opposition gained another rallying point yesterday with the news of another protester’s death after recent demonstrations, this one with links to Iran’s political elite. Mohsen Ruholamini, whose father, Abdolhussen Ruholamini, is an adviser to another presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezai, died in custody at Evin prison after being arrested during demonstrations on July 9, opposition websites said, citing relatives.

Ruholamini’s family had been told that he would be returning home, the websites reported. It was not clear how he died. The elder Ruholamini is a chemistry professor and the head of Iran’s Pasteur Institute. Rezai, a conservative and a strong critic of Ahmadinejad, is a former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.