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Iran's hard-liners face off over cabinet

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired his intelligence minister Sunday after being forced to remove his first vice president, a close adviser.

By Iason AthanasiadisCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 26, 2009

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (r.) and First Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Wednesday.

Yalda Moaiery/Reuters

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A fresh outburst of protests was repressed in Iran Saturday as the struggle deepened among hardliners over appointments in the new government and the opposition movement claimed another "martyr."

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After Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered an angry reminder at last Friday's prayers, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad backed down after a week of intransigence and accepted the ayatollah's written demand that he dismiss First Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The president's close adviser, whose son is married to Mr. Ahmadinejad's daughter, is still slated for a leading Cabinet role that would give him oversight of sensitive files such as energy and national security, after he was appointed chief adviser to the president.

Ministers fired and rehired

Ayatollah Khamenei's intervention was a clear example of the Supreme Leader exercising his prerogative to have final say on matters of national interest, such as Iran's nuclear program. But fallout from the row included the reported resignations of Intelligence Minister Mohsen Ezheie, Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, and Labor Minister Mohammad Jahromi. The sackings of the latter two were soon rescinded, but Mr. Saffar-Harandi announced later that he would resign anyway.

The conservative Fars News Agency described Mr. Ezheie's departure as a result of an "oral disagreement between the Intelligence Minister and the President during a government committee meeting last Wednesday." It is unclear if the President was responsible for firing the two men in a bid to strike back against the Supreme Leader and escalate the row.

His backtracking on two of the firings is being linked to a stipulation in the constitution that any government that changes half its ministers must be subjected to a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Ezheie's dismissal was another blow to clerical participation in government. Ahmadinejad is one of only three elected Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution that were not clerics. His opponents allege that his first presidency installed a devout military and technocratic elite that drastically reduced the influence of mullahs in government. Emboldened by four years in power, the theory goes, this clique carried out a soft coup that solidified its grip on power in the June 12 election.

The Iranian constitution stipulates that a cleric always hold the post of Intelligence Minister.

Crackdown on latest protests

Meanwhile, protesters flooded the streets of Tehran Saturday in another installment of the month-and-a-half struggle for public spaces that began when hundreds of thousands marched nightly in support of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during the election campaign period.

"The government has tried to control the level of violence but things could get much worse," says Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech and a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It appears more interested in winning than compromising with the opposition."

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