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Ahmadinejad Criticized By Hard-Liners Over Vice President Choice

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TEHRAN,Iran — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, already at the center of a post-election crisis, came under criticism from his own hard-line supporters Sunday for appointing a first vice president who once caused an outcry by saying Iranians were friends of Israelis.

Ahmadinejad has been under siege by opposition supporters who claim he stole last month's election from pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The latest criticism was a reminder that while hard-liners have supported Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, they often criticized him before the vote, especially over his handling of Iran's economy.

The disagreements among hard-liners had been set aside since the June 12 election as they faced hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters who protested in the streets over what they said was massive vote fraud.

Authorities have cracked down violently and have arrested hundreds, including Iranian employees of the British Embassy. Iran released the embassy's chief political analyst on bail Sunday after charging him with harming national security for alleged involvement in the protests, said the man's lawyer.

Police arrested 40 people on Friday after they clashed with thousands of protesters in the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Sunday. Some of those arrested were eventually released, it said.

The clashes followed a sermon by one of Iran's most powerful clerics, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who criticized the government's response to the election dispute.

Also Friday, Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, his son's father-in-law, as his first vice president. Mashai angered hard-liners in 2008 when he said Iranians were "friends of all people in the world – even Israelis."

Mashai was serving as vice president in charge of tourism and cultural heritage at the time. Iran has 12 vice presidents, but the first vice president is the most important because he leads Cabinet meetings in the absence of the president.

Hossein Shariatmadari, an aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and editor of hard-line Kayhan newspaper, said Sunday that Mashai's appointment caused "a wave of surprise mixed with regret and concern" among Ahmadinejad supporters.

"Many of the closest individuals to the president strongly oppose the appointment," he added.

Most hard-liners consider Israel to be Iran's archenemy, and Ahmadinejad himself has repeatedly called for the Jewish state's destruction.

Khamenei, who has supported Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, called Mashai's comments about Israelis "illogical" shortly after he said them but urged critics to abandon their call for the president to fire his relative.

Mashai also angered many of Iran's top clerics in 2007 when he attended a ceremony in Turkey where women performed a traditional dance. Conservative interpretations of Islam prohibit women from dancing.

He ran into trouble again in 2008 when he hosted a ceremony in Tehran in which several women played tambourines while another one carried the Quran to a podium to recite verses from the Muslim holy book. Hard-liners viewed the festive mood as disrespectful to the Quran.

Ali Motahari, a prominent hard-line lawmaker, said lawmakers should summon Ahmadinejad to parliament to express opposition to Mashai. Others said they planned to appeal to Khamenei to reverse the appointment. The supreme leader has final say over all state matters.

The criticism was a change of focus for hard-liners, who have spent the last few weeks lambasting Mousavi and his supporters for challenging the presidential election. On Saturday, hard-liners accused Rafsanjani of defying Khamenei by using his sermon to encourage opposition supporters to continue their protests.

Rafsanjani, speaking publicly for the first time since the election, denounced the government's violent crackdown against protesters and demanded the release of those detained. Instead of suppression, he said the government should work to address the concerns Iranians have over the legitimacy of the vote.

The sermon was a direct challenge to Khamenei and his hard-line supporters, who have said the election was fair and have called on opposition supporters to drop their claims of vote fraud. They have accused the U.S. and other foreign countries of fomenting the unrest – a charge they have denied.

Iran arrested nine local employees of the British Embassy in June, saying they were involved in the protests. Eight of them were released without being charged, but Hossein Rassam, the embassy's chief political analyst, was charged with harming national security.

Rassam, who was jailed June 27, was released from Tehran's Evin prison Sunday on bail of about $100,000, said his lawyer Abdolsama Khorramshi. His court date has not yet been set, he said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed Rassam's release and criticized the Iranian government for arresting the embassy employees.

"The detention of embassy staff was completely unjustified: I am confident that none of them were involved in any improper behavior," said Miliband in a statement.