Hard-liners slam Ahmadinejad's vice president choice

Esfandiar Rahim Mashai caused uproar in 2008 when he said Iranians were "friends of all people in the world - even Israelis."

ahmadinejad smiles 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad smiles 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was criticized by his own hard-line supporters Sunday for appointing a first vice president who once caused uproar by saying Iranians were friends of Israelis. The latest criticism was a reminder that while hard-liners have supported Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, they often criticized him before the vote, especially over his handling of Iran's economy. The disagreements among hard-liners had been set aside since the June 12 election as they faced hundreds of thousands of supporters of pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi who protested in the streets over what they said was massive vote fraud. Authorities have cracked down violently and have arrested hundreds. They detained 40 on Friday after police clashed with thousands of protesters in the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Sunday. Some of those arrested were eventually released, it said. The clashes followed a sermon by one of Iran's most powerful clerics, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who criticized the government's response to the election dispute. Also Friday, Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, his son's father-in-law, as his first vice president. Mashai angered hard-liners in 2008 when he said Iranians were "friends of all people in the world - even Israelis." Mashai was serving as vice president in charge of tourism and cultural heritage at the time. Iran has 12 vice presidents, but the first vice president is the most important because he leads Cabinet meetings in the absence of the president. Hossein Shariatmadari, an aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and editor of hard-line Kayhan newspaper, said Sunday that Mashai's appointment caused "a wave of surprise mixed with regret and concern" among Ahmadinejad supporters. "Many of the closest individuals to the president strongly oppose the appointment," he added. Khamenei, who has supported Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, called Mashai's comments about Israelis "illogical" shortly after he said them but urged critics to abandon their call for the president to fire his relative. Mashai also angered many of Iran's top clerics in 2007 when he attended a ceremony in Turkey where women performed a traditional dance. Conservative interpretations of Islam prohibit women from dancing. He ran into trouble again in 2008 when he hosted a ceremony in Teheran in which several women played tambourines while another one carried the Quran to a podium to recite verses from the Muslim holy book. Hard-liners viewed the festive mood as disrespectful to the Koran. Ali Motahari, a prominent hard-line lawmaker, said lawmakers should summon Ahmadinejad to parliament to express opposition to Mashai. Others said they planned to appeal to Khamenei to reverse the appointment. The supreme leader has final say over all state matters. The criticism was a change of focus for hard-liners, who have spent the last few weeks lambasting Mousavi and his supporters for challenging the presidential election. On Saturday, hard-liners accused Rafsanjani of defying Khamenei by using his sermon to encourage opposition supporters to continue their protests. Rafsanjani, speaking publicly for the first time since the election, denounced the government's violent crackdown against protesters and demanded the release of those detained. Instead of suppression, he said the government should work to address the concerns Iranians have over the legitimacy of the vote. The sermon was a direct challenge to Khamenei and his hard-line supporters, who have said the election was fair and have called on opposition supporters to drop their claims of vote fraud. They have accused the US and other foreign countries of fomenting the unrest - a charge they have denied. Iran on Sunday released an Iranian employee of the British Embassy on bail who it has charged with harming national security for alleged involvement in the protests, said the man's lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshi. Hossein Rassam, the embassy's chief political analyst who was jailed June 27, was released from Evin prison in Teheran on bail of about $100,000, said Khorramshi. His court date has not yet been set, he said. Iran arrested nine local employees of the British Embassy in June, saying they were involved in the protests. The others were released, and Rassam is the only one who has been charged. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed Rassam's release and criticized the Iranian government for arresting the embassy employees. "The detention of embassy staff was completely unjustified: I am confident that none of them were involved in any improper behavior," said Miliband in a statement.