Iran was plunged into fresh political turmoil on Sunday as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacked his intelligence minister while his culture minister resigned saying the government has been weakened.
Ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani meanwhile came out publicly to deny the Islamic republic is in the throes of a power struggle.
No official reason was given for the sacking of Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie, which comes just a few weeks before Ahmadinejad, re-elected for another four year term in a disputed vote last month, is due to finalise his new cabinet line-up.
Local news agencies had reported that four ministers had been dismissed but Ahmadinejad’s office denied this, saying only Ejeie had been given his marching orders.
One of those reported sacked, Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, late Sunday announced he had resigned because of the confused reports about his “dismissal.”
“Unfortunately due to the recent events which shows the esteemed government’s weakness, I will no longer consider myself the minister of culture and will not show up at the ministry as of tomorrow,” he said in a letter of resignation, as carried by the Fars news agency.
The Mehr news agency meanwhile quoted an informed source as saying that intelligence minister Ejeie was sacked “following a verbal quarrel between the intelligence minister and the president in Wednesday’s cabinet meeting over the appointment of (Esfandiar Rahim) Mashaie.”
Rahim Mashaie, who last year said Iran was a “friend of the Israeli people,” stepped down as first vice president on Saturday after his appointment by Ahmadinejad a week ago stirred controversy and angered hardliners.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened and personally ordered Ahmadinejad to dismiss Rahim Mashaie, saying the appointment would cause “division and frustration among your supporters.”
Lawmaker Ali Motahari urged Ahmadinejad to “control his nerves.”
“It looks as if he intentionally brings tension to the country. If the removal of the minister is because of this (objections to Rahim Mashaie’s appointment) it is an ugly act because then it becomes a personal matter and has nothing to do with the country’s interests.”
Another prominent MP, Ahmad Tavakoli, said that running the country was becoming “extremely difficult because of such behaviour (of Ahmadinejad), which is the poorest response to the confidence of 24.5 million voters who voted for him.”
Widespread protests after the June 12 re-election of Ahmadinejad left at least 20 people dead and have shaken the pillars of the Islamic republic.
Opposition leaders claim the vote was rigged and say they will refuse to recognise the new government.
Two key opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, on Sunday laid down a fresh challenge to Ahmadinejad by seeking permission from the interior ministry to hold a ceremony to mourn those killed in the protests, the ISNA news agency said.
The organisers, it added, planned to hold the ceremony on Thursday in central Tehran’s Grand Mosalla, an open prayer venue where religious ceremonies are regularly held.
On Saturday, opposition leaders called on Iran’s top clerics to intervene to prevent “oppression” by the authorities, as two detained protestors were reportedly killed in custody.
Cleric Rafsanjani, who remains powerful as the head of Iran’s main political arbitration body and the chairman of the council which oversees the work of the supreme leader, has accused the regime of having lost the trust of the people.
He has also called for the release of those detained during the protests and warned in Friday prayers on July 17 that many Iranians still harboured doubts over the outcome of the vote and that these concerns need to be addressed.
Khamenei, on the other hand has endorsed the results of the election and defended the crackdown on the protestors.
Rafsanjani, 75, on Sunday denied he and 70-year-old Khamenei are engaged in a power struggle.
He pointed to more than half a century of friendship between himself and the supreme leader, which started long before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“He is a progressive and forward-looking thinker in different subjects,” the former president said.
“The propaganda by the foreign media who try to suggest that there is a power struggle in the top level of the regime is unfair injustice to the Islamic revolution,” Rafsanjani was quoted as saying by Mehr.