x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Ahmadinejad warns ultraconservatives against arresting members of his government

Under-pressure Iranian president says he has a 'legal, national and ethical duty to defend my colleagues.'

TEHRAN // The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned the authorities yesterday against arresting members of his government, whom he promised to defend, the IRNA state news agency reported.

"I consider defending the cabinet as my duty … the cabinet is a red line and if they want to touch the cabinet, then defending it is my duty," Mr Ahmadinejad was quoted as telling reporters after a cabinet meeting.

His remarks came almost a week after the reported arrest of people close to his under-fire chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie.

"From our point of view these moves and pressures are political ... to put pressure on the government," said the president, whose government includes parliament-confirmed ministers and directly appointed vice-presidents.

"Our position is one of silence but in any case if they want to continue it and under different pretexts want to accuse our colleagues in the cabinet, then I have a legal, national and ethical duty to defend my colleagues," he said.

Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, a former member of Ahmadinejad's entourage who worked under Mr Mashaie, was reportedly arrested on "financial charges" last week after being forced out of a diplomatic post by conservative politicians.

Two more officials close to Mr Mashaie, who were in charge of two free trade zones across the country, were arrested in the following days, media reported.

Hamid Baghaie, a vice-president, has recently been accused by the judiciary and conservatives of abusing power in several obscure cases.

The reported arrests came as ultraconservatives, who accuse Mr Mashaie of exerting too much influence over Mr Ahmadinejad, have stepped up pressure on the president to dismiss his controversial confidant.

The regime's conservatives, the Shiite clergy and the Revolutionary Guard also accuse Mr Mashaie of leading "a current of deviation" aimed at undermining the Islamic regime.

In his statement yesterday, Mr Ahmadinejad called for government members to be respected.

"The supreme leader has repeatedly emphasised the issue of respecting people's right in judicial proceedings," he said.

"The status and reputation of individuals should be respected, especially government members who are working 24 hours and have no time to spare for defending themselves."

He urged officials to work "hand in hand" to assist in preserving the "privacy of individuals", and maintaining "calm" in the country.

A day earlier the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged Iranian media, politicians and judiciary to refrain from naming those arrested by the judiciary.

"If a person's crime has not yet been proven, the name of that person (and the accusations) should not be publicised ... I address not only the judiciary, but also officials outside the branch as well as the media," Ayatollah Khamenei said, adding that public opinion is "unable to differentiate between the accused and the person who is actually found guilty".