Iran Official Arrested For Criticizing Clerics

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 12, 2008

TEHRAN, June 11 -- A mid-level government official supportive of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's political faction was arrested Wednesday for making public accusations of corruption against several top clerics, the Iranian Fars News Agency reported.

Iranian media accounts said Abbas Palizdar gave two speeches at universities in the Iranian cities of Hamadan and Shiraz in May in which he denounced several clerics, some of whom hold important political positions.

Public attacks by officials against high-ranking clerics are extremely rare in Iran, and Palizdar's speeches have been covered prominently by opposition media abroad. One of his speeches was videotaped and has been posted on the Internet.

Some of the clerics Palizdar criticized are political opponents of Ahmadinejad, the country's elected president and a self-styled enemy of corruption. Ahmadinejad's power is sometimes eclipsed by that of clerics who oversee the government.

Mehrdad Bazrbash, a politician in Ahmadinejad's faction, said the comments were part of a conspiracy against the government aimed at creating "disagreement among officials," according to a report in the pro-government Iran newspaper.

Palizdar was arrested Wednesday morning and charged by a Tehran prosecutor with "propagating lies" and "confusing public opinion." An Iranian bank, Mellat, also pressed charges against Palizdar for not paying back a business loan worth approximately $6.6 million that he received 16 years ago, Fars News reported.

In 2006, Palizdar unsuccessfully sought a seat on the Tehran city council, representing a faction close to Ahmadinejad. Several Web sites described Palizdar as the secretary of parliament's research committee. Saeed Aboutaleb, a former member of parliament, said no such position exists. Palizdar "was helping one of the parliament members as an expert but wasn't present in the sessions of the committee that deals with corruption issues," Aboutaleb said.

The government denied any connection to Palizdar, and Iranian newspapers denounced the speeches, which received attention in Iran after opposition media based in the United States reported on them. "He has attacked and accused some clerics and simultaneously supported the government's anti-corruption campaign to put clerics and respectable figures at odds with the government," said a report in the Iran newspaper, which called Palizdar a "fake whistle-blower."

Newspapers and official news agencies have not carried the speeches. Tabnak, a Web site associated with a former general critical of Ahmadinejad, has published excerpts in which Palizdar accuses prominent clerics of corruption, including ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current president's leading political opponent.

Rafsanjani has not responded to the allegations but in the past has said he lives modestly and that stories about his great wealth are false. In 2004, the chief executive of Norway's Statoil resigned after the company was found guilty of paying bribes to an Iranian consulting firm belonging to one of Rafsanjani's son's, Mehdi.

Ahmadinejad railed against corruption before he was elected president in 2005. Since then, his government has started to gain control over influential state institutions such as the Oil Ministry; thousands of experienced government managers have been replaced, sometimes following accusations of corruption; and an important economic council was dissolved, allowing the government greater control over economic policy. Still, Ahmadinejad has stated repeatedly that powerful groups within the Iranian power structure were working against him.

In a speech in April, Ahmadinejad said most of the country's problems were the fault of "economic mafias" and accused senior economic officials of his own government of not carrying out his orders. The president, himself under fierce criticism because of rising inflation, promised to bring corrupt officials to justice. "I announce right here to the people of Iran that I am your humble servant who is standing by his words and in the fight against corruption," he said. "I will not stand back even a bit from my economic positions."

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