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(photo credit: AP [file])
A top reform politician said Wednesday that US demonizing of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only strengthens hard-liners by rallying Iranians around their otherwise unpopular leader. Even worse would be a military strike against Iran, which he warned would set back democracy a decade or more.
Mohsen Mirdamadi is the leader of the largest pro-reform party in Iran, which has been working to make a comeback after being forced out of power by hardliners like Ahmadinejad, close to the country's Islamic clerical leadership.
He told The Associated Press that Ahmadinejad should have little chance of re-election in two years because of increasing criticism that he has failed to fix the economy and has hurt Iran on the world stage.
But the barrage of attacks on the hard-line leader this week in New York - including during his appearance at Columbia University - boosts his popularity, Mirdamadi told The Associated Press in an interview.
"The remarks by the Columbia University president were like an indictment against the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad's opponents don't support this," he said.
"The blistering speech against Ahmadinejad only strengthened him back home and made his radical supporters more determined," Mirdamadi said during an hour-long exclusive interview in his central Teheran office.
During Monday's question-and-answer session, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger gave a tough introduction to Ahmadinejad, including telling him that he resembles a "petty and cruel dictator."
Many Iranians found the comments insulting, particularly because in Iranian traditions of hospitality, a host should be polite to a guest, no matter what he thinks of him. To many, Ahmadinejad looked like the victim, and hard-liners praised the president's calm demeanor during the event, saying Bollinger was spouting a "Zionist" line.
Tensions are high between Washington and Teheran over US accusations that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq that target US troops. Iran has denied both claims.
Fears are high in Iran that the US or Israel will carry out a military strike on the country, which Iranian leaders have warned would spark retaliation against Israel and US bases in the region. Washington has said it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, but US officials also say that all options are open.
Mirdamadi said Western powers have to stop any talk of war if they want democracy in Iran to succeed. The threat of an attack "helps Ahmadinejad's political agenda," he said.
"Any US military action against Iran will only boost radicals within Iran ... Military action will set back democracy in Iran for a decade or two," Mirdamadi warned.
Mirdamadi, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, was a top lawmaker among the democracy activists who held a majority in parliament under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, from 1997-2005.
But in 2004, hard-liners in the unelected clerical bodies that oversee Iran's political system barred him and other reformists from running for re-election, putting conservatives back in control of the body.
The following year, Ahmadinejad was elected president. Reformists - who want to loosen Iran's tight social and political restrictions and favor better relations with the US - were left demoralized and divided.
But since then, Ahmadinejad's star has fallen at home. Elected on a populist agenda, he failed to keep campaign promises to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment.
Housing prices in Teheran have tripled and prices for fruits, vegetables or other basic commodities have more than doubled since last summer. Inflation further worsened after a 25 percent hike in fuel prices in May.
Last December, Ahmadinejad's allies were humiliated in municipal elections, with some reformists gaining seats. He was dealt another blow when a top rival, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, was chosen as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful clerical body, over a close Ahmadinjead ally.
Conservatives who once supported the president have increasingly joined in the criticism, saying he needs to pay more attention to the economy and that his inflammatory rhetoric has often needlessly stoked tensions with the West.
Mirdamadi said democratic reforms still have a chance of success.
"Ahmadinejad's popularity has declined. Those who voted for him expected improvement in their living standards but it didn't happen. The honeymoon is over," he said. "If this trend continues, he will have no chance for re-election."