Illness stirs talk of new president in Iran

Reports about the health of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have stirred speculation on whether the controversial populist will run again for the country's highest elected office in June.

In an interview published late Saturday by Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, a close associate of Ahmadinejad said he had fallen ill.

“Every human being can face exhaustion under such a workload,” lawmaker Mohammad Ismail Kowsari said. “The president will eventually get well and continue his job.”

The exuberant Ahmadinejad, who turns 53 today, missed several public appearances last week, but appeared at several low-key events over the weekend.

The absences have prompted whispers that he is on his way out. But Kowsari and others close to Ahmadinejad have accused his critics of trying to use a routine illness for political advantage.

Observers in Tehran cautioned against reading too much into the illness. Although Ahmadinejad is said to suffer from low blood pressure, there is no evidence he has serious health problems or that he is being nudged out of his post by the country's religious leadership.

But the incident shows how openly the knives are out for Ahmadinejad within Iran's ruling circle. On Saturday, Parliament moved to impeach pro-Ahmadinejad Interior Minister Ali Kordan, who, according to Iran's Fars News Agency, admitted submitting a fake honorary Oxford law degree as evidence of his qualifications.

Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric and passion for public attention have made him a lightning rod for Western criticism of Iran's nuclear program and staunch opposition to Israel. But both policies remain under the purview of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ranking cleric who is Iran's ultimate authority on security and foreign policy.

A group of conservative politicians has joined with a more liberal faction known as reformists to criticize Ahmadinejad's economic policies and brash style as against Iran's interests. Iran's official inflation rate has risen to 29 percent. Its unemployment rate tops 10 percent, although independent experts say it is higher.

Ahmadinejad's allies have been walloped by the so-called pragmatic conservatives in recent local and parliamentary elections.

Some Iranians and Western diplomats have voiced hope that moderate former President Mohammad Khatami would run against Ahmadinejad next year. Khatami's supporters say he will consider running for office only if Ahmadinejad does not stack the deck by doling out government cash to would-be voters.

Critics have accused the president of giving out low-interest loans and launching flashy public-works projects to curry favor with uneducated rural voters.