Iran president's radicalism sparks anger

Monday, November 28, 2005

TEHRAN, Iran -- Critics say the 1980s-style radicalism of ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hurting Iran at home and abroad -- to the point that even his natural allies in parliament have rejected his three choices to run the all-important oil ministry.

The Islamic hard-liner appears undeterred, but pragmatists in the ruling hierarchy are growing restless and looking for ways to contain him.

"Ahmadinejad's behavior has annoyed many fellow conservatives. That he doesn't like to consult with anybody outside his small circle of old friends is a reality," said Ghodratollah Rahmani, a conservative writer.

"He doesn't consult even with knowledgeable people in his own camp."

Even extremists within the hard-line camp want Ahmadinejad to be more responsive to their advice.

Since taking office in August, Ahmadinejad has jettisoned Iran's moderation in foreign policy and pursued a purge in the government, replacing pragmatic veterans with former military commanders and inexperienced religious hard-liners.

The former Tehran mayor's aim is to install a new generation of rulers who will revive the radical fundamentalist goals pursued in the 1980s under the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the 1979 revolution that toppled Iran's pro-Western shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

All pragmatists, including those seeking better ties with the West, have either lost their posts or likely will lose them soon, pushing the government toward an ever more radical stance in the already volatile Middle East and in the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which the United States believes is seeking to build weapons.

Ahmadinejad's call last month for Israel to be "wiped off the map" intensified international concerns about his policies. Iran's resumption of uranium conversion angered some nations that have suspicions over whether the Tehran regime is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iranian moderates say the president has harmed his country by isolating it internationally, and now Ahmadinejad's friends are lining up against him. He suffered a humiliating defeat last week when his choice for oil minister was rejected for a third time, an unprecedented failure for an Iranian president.

While parliament is dominated by Ahmadinejad's conservative allies, the president's isolationist stance and his failure to consult on Cabinet appointments have annoyed lawmakers. They warn they will not approve any future nominee unless Ahmadinejad first consults parliament.

Pragmatists within the ruling establishment worry that Ahmadinejad's radical agenda has sidelined a cadre of experienced men at home and isolated the country abroad.

Earlier this month, the government announced that 40 ambassadors and senior diplomats, including supporters of better ties with the West, would be fired. Also let go were pragmatists who handled Iran's nuclear negotiations with Europe under Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

For the first time, a cleric was appointed to head Tehran University, Iran's oldest university, amid noisy protests Sunday by students over the appointment, state media reported. The university has been the scene of weekly Friday prayer services since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but also has also been a hub for many protests, including pro-democracy student demonstrations in 1999.

In the works, but still not made public, is a deeper shake-up of the establishment in which Ahmadinejad is replacing hundreds of governors and senior officials at various ministries with young, inexperienced Islamic hard-liners who oppose good relations with the West. The changes include putting fundamentalists in key posts at security agencies.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president in the 1990s who remains influential with some in both the hard-line and moderate camps, said the purge has made Iran vulnerable.

"Unfortunately, some are on the offensive, damaging what has been done, and purging competent people. This is hurting the country," Rafsanjani said.

But Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, has endorsed Ahmadinejad's course.

"Ahmadinejad's government represents the people's tendency to revolutionary slogans," he said earlier this month. "For any assessment of the president and his Cabinet, one has to give him time and opportunity."

Mahdi Kalhor, a senior adviser to the president, said Iranians and other nations have to accept that Ahmadinejad prefers to work in isolation.

"Yes, the president consults (only) his trusted friends," Kalhor said. "Ahmadinejad has a revolutionary management policy. He makes decisions within 24 hours that previous governments used to take within five years."

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