A leading Iranian banker has fled the country, the latest development in a $2.6 billion embezzlement scandal that opponents are linking to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mahmoud Reza Khavari, managing director of Bank Melli, Iran’s largest state-owned bank, flew to Canada after the arrest of several top-level bankers in connection with a case described as the largest embezzlement in Iranian history, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported Wednesday. Khavari is among 22 people being sought by Iran’s chief prosecutor in the case, and his bank stands accused of facilitating some of the fraudulent payments.

The banking scandal revolves around wealthy businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, who allegedly forged letters of credit with the help of high-level bank managers. The managers in turn were urged to participate by government officials, according to the Mashreghnews Web site, which is critical of Ahmadinejad. Khosravi is accused of using the money, the equivalent of $2.6 billion, to start a private bank called Aria Bank.

Among those linked to the scandal are some of Iran’s leading politicians, including Ahmadinejad, his opponents have charged. Cabinet ministers, former Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and the head of the Central Bank are publicly blaming one another for losing billions of dollars to Khosravi, who allegedly built his steel and railroad business empire through his connections with the government.

The bank fraud adds to the pressure on Ahmadinejad that has been growing after a public falling out in April with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over the forced resignation of the intelligence minister.

For now, Iran’s powerful Shiite clerical leaders appear to want Ahmadinejad to finish his presidential term, which ends in 2013. But their supporters have started damaging campaigns against the president and his inner circle of advisers.

The attacks focus on Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is accused of leading a “deviant current” aimed at undermining the influence of the Shiite Muslim clerics who have held sway in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But Ahmadinejad has strongly defended his adviser and has threatened to step down if Mashaei were arrested.

“The leader [Khamenei] has decided that it’s in the interest of the country if Ahmadinejad serves out his term,” said Amir Mohebbian, a political strategist with close connections to Iran’s leaders. “But at the same time, many people are trying to weaken him.”

Intelligence minister’s role

The banking scandal was brought to light by the intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, a Shiite cleric who was forced by Ahmadinejad to resign in April but was then reinstated by the supreme leader. According to the Javan newspaper, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad’s attempt to fire Moslehi was triggered by an investigation into the embezzlement.

“They wanted to plunder the public treasury,” the newspaper wrote, charging that the group close to Ahmadinejad had been planning to use the money to finance a takeover of Iran’s political system. “Their objective [for firing the intelligence minister] was to destroy the documents related to the embezzlement.”

Opponents of Ahmadinejad say that a letter signed by Mashaei ordering the sale of state companies to Khosravi, the main suspect in the bank fraud case, proves that the government is involved in the embezzlement. But the government has issued a statement insisting that the letter was part of a normal business deal.

Iran’s national prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, said Monday that 22 arrest warrants have been issued in the case. A committee appointed by the government has ordered the resignations of several bank managers, including Khavari, the Bank Melli managing director.

According to the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency, Khavari resigned Tuesday, and his resignation was approved by the minister of economic affairs and finance, Shamseddin Hosseini.

Khavari flew via London to Frankfurt, Germany, where he bought a first-class ticket to Canada, Mashreghnews reported Wednesday. The Web site said that, like several other high-level Iranian officials, Khavari and his family are Canadian citizens.

“It is in Mr. Khavari’s interest to come back to Iran to defend himself against the accusations,” Mohseni-Ejei told the Fars News Agency on Wednesday.

In a statement, Bank Melli confirmed that Khavari was out of the country but said he was on “official business” and would return.

Casting blame

The head of the Central Bank and the managing director of the Saderat Bank have blamed each other for not investigating the enormous money transfers, which were used to buy enterprises from soccer clubs to steel factories, in addition to starting the private bank. Saderat Bank allegedly was involved in facilitating the embezzlement, but the Central Bank is responsible for supervising all of Iran’s banks, including Saderat.

The case illustrates the chaos gripping the Iranian banking sector. The head of Saderat Bank, Mohammad Jahromi, a former Ahmadinejad minister and Revolutionary Guards commander, refused to resign as ordered by the government committee, prompting the bank to fire him Wednesday. Jahromi told Fars that he is a fall guy and that “higher-ups in the system” are involved in the scandal.

Members of parliament, meanwhile, are outraged over remarks by Hosseini, Ahmadinejad’s economic affairs minister, who praised chief embezzlement suspect Khosravi as “a hero of Iran’s industry” for creating jobs.

“This is the cleanest government” in Iranian history, Ahmadinejad told a crowd Sept. 14 in the northwestern city of Ardabil. He warned his opponents that he, too, has access to incriminating documents.

“We are silent now,” he said. “But evil-wishers should know that [our] silence will not be a permanent one.”