Ahmadinejad's congrats turns tables in Iran

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received praise from Iran's reformist politicians and withering criticism from its conservatives after he sent Barack Obama a letter last week congratulating him on winning the U.S. presidential race.

But in a sign that conservatives fear their attacks might inadvertently strengthen a possible reformist candidate in Iran's own presidential vote in June, their criticism has quickly shifted to early support for Ahmadinejad's re-election.

The potential opponent is former President Mohammed Khatami, the moderate Ahmadinejad bested in the last elections in 2005. Khatami has not yet announced his candidacy, but is under pressure from his political allies to run.

On Friday, Obama offered a public reaction to the letter in his first post-election news conference, saying he would review it and respond appropriately. But he also said Iran's “support for terrorist organizations has to ease” and its suspected development of nuclear weapons was not acceptable.

On Saturday, reformist politicians offered praise for Ahmadinejad's outreach. The letter “presented a humane, reasonable and peace-seeking image of Iran,” according to the daily Etemad.

But conservative members of Parliament and newspapers launched attacks.

The hardline Jomhuri Islami newspaper, in an editorial, said initiating contact with the United States was among the responsibilities of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious leader, and not of Ahmadinejad. Relations ruptured in 1979, after the Islamic Revolution in February and the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran by hardline students in November.

The speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, referred to Obama's noncommittal response and said the United States “was not moving in the right direction” for improving relations.

Ahmad Tavakoli, a conservative member of Parliament, released a public letter, saying Ahmadinejad's unilateral efforts had been met with “arrogant responses” and did not serve the country's dignity.

But by Sunday, the criticism had evaporated, and some conservative politicians had begun to condone the letter.

Ahmadinejad is popular in smaller towns and villages, where he has distributed financial aid. In contrast, Khatami would be expected to draw support from large cities.

One analyst suggested that the conservatives were trying to get the reformists to choose a different candidate.

“Maybe the conservatives are signaling to reformers that if they go after Mr. Khatami, they would get unified behind Mr. Ahmadinejad despite their differences with him,” said Badr-al-sadat Mofidi, deputy editor of the reformist Kargozaran daily.