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Sat 25 Jul 2009 09:31 AM

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Controversial Iranian vice-president steps down

Controversial aide of Iran president abandons his week-old position as first vice president.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, controversial aide of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, abandoned his week-old position as first vice president on Saturday after Iran's supreme leader ordered him fired.

"Following the order of the supreme leader, I do not consider myself as the first vice president, but ... will serve our dear people in any capacity," Rahim Mashaie told the Fars news agency.

Rahim Mashaie quit his post after Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all national issues, ordered his dismissal following strong opposition from the country's hardliners.

Khamenei said that the appointment of Rahim Mashaie, who caused a stir last year when he said Iran was a "friend of the Israeli people," was against the nation's interests and a blow to the president's own supporters.

"The appointment of Mr Rahim Mashaie as a deputy to the president is against your best interest and the government's interest, and it will cause division and frustration among your supporters," state television on Friday quoted Khamenei as saying in a letter to Ahmadinejad.

"It is necessary that the appointment be cancelled," he added in the letter, according to the channel.

Ahmadinejad's appointment last week of Rahim Mashaie as his first deputy sparked a chorus of opposition in Iran, even among the incumbent's own hardline supporters.

The aide, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, is an outspoken figure who earned the wrath of many, including Khamenei, for saying Iran was a "friend of the Israeli people."

The uproar over Rahim Mashaie comes at a time when Iran is facing its biggest crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Widespread protests after last month's disputed presidential elections which left at least 20 people dead has shaken the pillars of the Islamic republic.

Ahmadinejad's re-election has been hotly disputed by his main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, who says his victory was a result of massive vote rigging.

The crisis has ricocheted all the way up the state structure, with Khamenei denouncing protesters, giving unconditional support to Ahmadinejad and declaring the poll legal.

But powerful cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani sees the Islamic regime as having lost the trust of the people, while reformists such as former president Mohammad Khatami have urged that a referendum be held to end the crisis.

Iran's reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd said the controversy over Rahim Mashaie was triggered to divert attention from the election dispute.

"But the calculations went wrong after it was exposed that the highest authority (supreme leader) had issued a written order (to sack Rahim Mashaie)," the newspaper said an editorial on Saturday.

"The supporters of the government thought they could reduce (election related) attacks on the one who appointed Mashaie by highlighting attacks on Mashaie's appointment," it said, adding their plan failed as the reformists had not taken the appointment of Rahim Mashaie seriously.

Iranian independent political analyst Mohammad Saleh Sedghian said Rahim Mashaie's appointment was an attempt by Ahmadinejad to have "total control" of the new cabinet.

"Mr. Mashaie is one of Mr. Ahmadinejad's inner circle of trustees... his appointment was to have total supervision of the cabinet, especially control over sensitive sectors like oil, economy and central bank.

"His appointment was aimed at having total control over the cabinet over the next four years so there would be absolutely no opposition."

Ahmadinejad had openly expressed his admiration for Rahim Mashaie.

"I like Rahim Mashaie for 1,000 reasons. One of the biggest honours of my life and one of the biggest favours from God to me is knowing Rahim Mashaie," the president said on Wednesday.

"He is like a pure source of water. He is like a transparent mirror. Unfortunately not many people know him."

A senior aide to Ahmadinejad said the official, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, accepted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's ruling and was giving up the post of first vice president.

In a letter read on state television, Ayatollah Khamenei said: "The appointment of... Mashaie as vice president is against your interest and the interests of the government and will cause division among your supporters."

"It is necessary to announce the cancellation of this appointment," Khamenei added.

Despite increased pressure, Ahmadinejad had shown no sign of backing down over his appointment of Mashaie as first vice president, whom he has praised as loyal to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But his senior adviser Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi told the state news agency IRNA: "Following the leader's ruling, Mr Mashaie does not regard himself as the vice president."

Ahmadinejad came under fire from several leading hardliners after appointing Mashaie his first vice-president on July 16.

Analysts have said that the decision by Ahmadinejad to appoint Mashaie, to whom he is related by marriage, suggested the president had only a small entourage of people he trusted.

Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a June 12 presidential vote, which stirred the largest display of internal unrest in Iran, the world's fifth biggest oil exporter, since the 1979 Islamic revolution and exposed deep rifts in its ruling elite.

Mashaie's remarks on Israel in 2008 created a storm at home, but Ahmadinejad had remained defiant, saying Mashaie's remarks had been "misrepresented".

Mashaie also came under fire for hosting a ceremony in November where women in traditional dress carried Islam's holy book, the Koran, to music, an action deemed insulting to the Koran. (Reuters)

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