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. Gloves come off as Iran moderates battle Ahmadinejad
TEHRAN, Nov 15 (AFP) Nov 15, 2007
Iran's moderates are intensifying criticism of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, landing their first blows in a bitter political fight ahead of elections next year.

The moderate heavyweights Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have been unusually explicit in their criticism of Ahmadinejad's economic policies and his analysis of the threat posed by the United States.

Ahmadinejad has shot back using language colourful even by his standards, warning he would expose "traitors" in the nuclear standoff and accusing critics of "being less intelligent than a goat".

The sharp rhetoric is the upshot of concerns over the mounting international crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme and a sign of the proximity of legislative elections on March 14.

There is exasperation among moderates over Ahmadinejad's brushing-off of UN sanctions action as just "pieces of paper" and his refusal to even countenance the possibility of a US military attack.

Political exchanges in Iran are normally marked by the utmost courtesy. But the differences in visions of the country's future means the tensions between the factions are now abundantly clear.

Mohammad Atrianfar, a confidant of Rafsanjani, said the explicit criticism had been triggered by the degree of concern amongst moderates about the state of the country under Ahmadinejad.

"Rafsanjani is genuinely worried," the leading newspaper editor told AFP.

"He was one of those who created this (Islamic) system and as he was a leader in the (1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war) he knows what war means and what price people have to pay.

"Ahmadinejad does not have a true idea about reality. He has no sense of fear. He thinks that if he adopts radical positions his rivals will step back. The attacks are set to multiply ahead of the elections."

The attacks are coming from a broad front of reformists, moderates and more pragmatic conservatives:

-- Khatami, president from 1997-2005, is an unashamed reformist who until recently refrained from making public criticism of the government.

But in the last month he has accused it of "ignorance and lack of expertise" and sounded the alarm over its economic policies, saying inflation was a growing problem which government statistics were trying to conceal.

-- Rafsanjani, president from 1989-1997 but humiliated by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 vote, has also stepped up criticism of the president's confidence that the United States will not attack.

The cleric, who now heads two powerful elite bodies, said the danger from the United States "exists and is very serious", a flat contradiction of Ahmadinejad's position.

-- Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a pragmatic conservative seen as a possible contender in the 2009 presidential elections, on Tuesday made his most explicit criticism yet of the government.

Officials had to act with "more maturity, intelligence and cunning as it seems that that situation is going to become more sensitive," he said.

-- The influential former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaie said the threats of Iran's foes should not be taken as "jokes", in a clear warning to Ahmadinejad's perceived complacency.

Although opposition figures found common ground in their attacks on the president, it remains to be seen if their unity will extend to the parliamentary elections and the presidential poll in 2009.

Reformists like Khatami are by no means natural allies of traditional conservatives like Qalibaf or even more moderate figures, athough the Ahmadinejad era appears to have brought them closer.

The next months will be critical, especially if the United States steps up sanctions against the Islamic republic or even drops more hints it is considering military action against Tehran.

"The financial sanctions are starting to have an effect. In addition, you cannot underestimate the danger of military strikes. The situation could spiral out of control," said leading reformist Mostafa Tadjzadeh.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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