Image: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Esfandiar Rahim Mashai
Ali Rafiee  /  AP file
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, speaks with the then Vice-President Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, in a meeting in Tehran, Iran.
updated 7/22/2009 2:20:44 PM ET 2009-07-22T18:20:44

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stuck by his controversial appointment for a key top deputy on Wednesday in an unusual defiance of Iran's supreme leader, who reportedly ordered the man's removal. His move deepens the dispute among the country's hard-line leadership.

Ahmadinejad's defiance will likely outrage his fellow conservatives and could cause an outright rift between him and his close ally Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The wrangling within the hard-liners' camp comes as Khamenei is trying to keep them all together in the face of a strong opposition challenge after the disputed June 12 presidential election. Khamenei's order for the removal of Esfandiar Rahim Mashai was a stinging humiliation for Ahmadinejad — seen as the leader's protege — but Khamenei appeared to judge it necessary to preserve hard-line support.

A chorus of ultra-conservative clerics and politicians denounced Mashai since Ahmadinejad announced him as his choice for first vice president last week.

Mashai is a relative by marriage to Ahmadinejad — his daughter is married to the president's son. Mashai angered hard-liners in 2008 when he said Iranians were "friends of all people in the world — even Israelis." He was serving as vice president in charge of tourism and cultural heritage at the time.

First vice president is most important
Iran has 12 vice presidents, but the first vice president is the most important because he succeeds the president if he dies, is incapacitated, steps down or is removed. The first vice president also leads Cabinet meetings in the absence of the president.

After days of controversy, Khamenei ruled. "The view of the exalted leader on the removal of Mashai from the post of vice president has been given to Ahmadinejad in writing," the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Wednesday.

But later Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said he wanted time to explain his appointment and fervently defended Mashai

"There is a need for time and another opportunity to fully explain my real feelings and assessment about Mr. Mashai," Ahmadinejad said in a speech at a farewell ceremony for Mashai at the tourism organization he headed in his previous vice presidency post.

"One of virtues and glories God has bestowed to me in life was to get acquainted with this great, honest and pious man," Ahmadinejad said, according to the state news agency IRNA. "Some are questioning why am I so interested in Mr. Mashai and I respond that it is for a thousand reasons. One is that when one sits and talks with him, you feel you are talking to yourself, you feel no distance. His heart is clear like mirror."

As supreme leader, Khamenei has ultimate say in state affairs. But his order for Mashai's removal was an unprecedented extension of his powers. The supreme leader is believed often to informally vet top government appointments behind the scenes, but he does not have a formal role in approving them or an official power to remove them. Even under Iran's pro-reform government from 1997-2005, which Khamenei is believed to have opposed, he never overtly ousted any of its officials.

The deputy speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Hasan Aboutorabi-Fard said late Tuesday that Mashai's dismissal was a decision by the system of ruling clerics, which stands above the elected government and is headed by Khamenei.

"Removing Mashai from key posts and the position of vice president is a strategic decision of the system ... Dismissal or resignation of Mashai needs to be announced by the president without any delay," he said, according to the semiofficial ISNA news.

Several tussles during first term
In his first term, Ahmadinejad had several tussles with his own hard-line camp over appointments, some of whom were seen as not qualified for their posts. In most cases, Khamenei stayed on the sidelines of those disputes.

Last year, the supreme leader rebuked Mashai, calling his Israel comments "illogical," but he also demanded that the flap over the comments be put the rest and expressed support for Ahmadinejad. Mashai remained in his position.

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 Tehran in which several women played tambourines and another one carried the Quran to a podium to recite verses from the Muslim holy book.

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