TEHRAN // Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says allegations of high-level corruption against First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, mainly made by conservative rivals, are unfounded and politically motivated.
"Mr Rahimi is a brilliant, innocent and pious brother [serving the government]," Mr Ahmadinejad told reporters after a cabinet meeting last week.
The president's defence of Mr Rahimi was spurred by fresh allegations of corruption by Elias Naderan, a prominent legislator in a live programme broadcast by state-run television a week ago. He criticised the country's judiciary for delaying Mr Rahimi's prosecution for corruption.
Mr Naderan, who first publicized corruption allegations against Mr Rahimi in April 2010 claims he has evidence that proves Mr Rahimi was the ringleader of a corruption band known as "Fatemi Circle". Eleven members of the so-called Fatemi band who were implicated in a government-linked embezzlement case are in jail awaiting trial.
Other prominent conservative legislators, such as Ahmad Tavakkoli and Ali Motahari, have backed Mr Naderan's claims and demanded that Mr Rahimi be put to trial.
"Is it fair that low-ranking defendant in Iran Insurance Company case - which is only one of the cases the he has been involved in - should be jailed … when [Mr Rahimi] is not even indicted," Mr Tavakkoli wrote in an open letter to chief justice Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, which was published last Monday.
Conservative legislators also allege that Mr Rahimi spent large sums of government money to bribe legislators to vote in favour of a government bill a few years ago when he was the cabinet's parliamentary liaison deputy. Mr Rahimi also wielded his influence to help others to evade justice, they say.
Mr Rahimi, who is one of the Iranian president's most trusted men, is the chairman of the government's anti-financial corruption task force.
Mr Rahimi, who has declined to publicly comment on these allegations, has filed a defamation suit against Mr Naderan and Ali Motahari, another conservative legislator.
The prosecutor general, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, last month confirmed that Mr Rahimi faced charges of corruption that needed to be investigated.
Mr Mohseni Ejei was the first judiciary official to publicly say Mr Rahimi was suspected of corruption and that he was being investigated.
Analysts say it will be significant if Mr Rahimi is put to trial.
"A move like that will signify that the supreme leader has finally decided that he shouldn't invest all his support in the president and ignore the complaints of other conservatives against him," said an analyst in Tehran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Fighting between the presidential and conservative camps has risen to a new level in recent months. They disagree over economic policies, particularly the president's ambitious economic reform plan, but it is mainly his seemingly unconditional support for Mr Rahimi and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie,that angers them most.
Unlike Mr Rahimi, who has been targeted with allegations of corruption, Mr Mashaie is under attack for his unorthodox religious views and for allegedly influencing the president's decisions in other matters including the appointment and firing of cabinet members and other government officials.
Mr Mashaie belongs to a group that believe the emergence of the Imam in Occultation (the 12th Shiite imam) will soon happen. Others, most importantly top clerical religious authorities, believe nobody knows when the imam will return. He has also expressed controversial views about an "Iranian school of thought" instead of an "Islamic school of thought", about the hijab and the religious ban on music.
Mr Ahmadinejad has always supported Mr Mashaie and many speculate that he intends to endorse his controversial chief of staff as his successor in the 2013 presidential elections. Many conservatives and hardliners, even some top clerics, have already made it clear that they are not prepared to accept Mr Mashaie as the next president.
Fighting corruption was high on President Ahmadinejad's election campaign agenda both times that he ran for presidency.
In 2009, his allegations of corruption against the rival politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family members caused a stir in the country.
Last year Mehdi Hashemi, one of Mr Rafsanjani's sons, was indicted on charges of spending government assets to fund his father's 2005 election campaign, based on the confessions of a defendant in post-poll trials of 2009. Mr Hashemi, who now lives abroad, denies any wrongdoing. Mr Ahmadinejad's allies have repeatedly demanded that he be extradited and put on trial.
Some conservatives blame the president for the abundance of corruption allegations. "The dangerous domino [of corruption allegations] that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began as a presidential candidate is still taking victims," Farad News, a website affiliated with the conservative Tehran mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, wrote this week.