Arrest of Muhammad Sharif Malekzadeh comes amid growing rift between president and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Former deputy foreign minister Muhammad Sharif Malekzadeh. Several allies of Iran’s president are under scrutinty for allegedly attempting to undermine clerical power. Photograph: Hamed Jafarnejad/AP
Iran’s former deputy foreign minister, Muhammad Sharif Malekzadeh, a close ally of the hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been arrested on charges of financial corruption.
Malekzadeh resigned from his post two days ago – only a week after he was appointed – after coming under pressure from the conservative-dominated parliament for his connections to Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief of staff and close confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
In the face of the growing rift between Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allies of the president and Mashaei have come under scrutiny for allegedly attempting to undermine clerical power and compromise revolutionary values.
Supporters of Khamenei, who include a majority of the parliament, have launched a campaign against Mashaei and his team – who are described as a “deviant current” in the inner circle of the president. In recent weeks, at least 25 people close to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been arrested, including presidential aide Kazem Kiapasha, and the head of the cultural committee, Abbas Amirifar.
Esmail Kowsari, the deputy head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, told Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency: “[Malekzadeh] was arrested this morning on financial fraud charges and because there are numerous existing cases against him.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, faced impeachment proceedings on Tuesday over the appointment of Malekzadeh, but the motion was withdrawn after Malekzadeh’s resignation. In his resignation letter, which was addressed to Salehi, Malekzadeh wrote: “Despite dastardly manipulations and plentiful injustices done against me, I can’t accept that you suffer from unjust pressures because of me anymore.”
Malekzadeh was a deputy to Mashaei when the latter headed Iran’s cultural heritage and tourism organisation.
Conservatives who say Ahmadinejad is under the spell of Mashaei are worried about the increasing influence of the chief of staff in Iran’s politics and have accused his team of anything from corruption to sorcery.
Iran’s parliament, at the same time, is believed to be only waiting for Khamenei’s green light to impeach Ahmadinejad for his support for Mashaei. Analysts believe Khamenei would prefer the president to quietly end his term of office rather than confronting him in public.
Many believe that the only reason Mashaei himself has not yet been arrested is because Khamenei fears Ahmadinejad might resign if his right-hand man were detained.
The president’s resignation would be a blow to Khamenei, who wholeheartedly supported Ahmadinejad in the 2009 disputed presidential election, which gave him a second term in office.