Iran's Ahmadinejad gives new job to aide seen as possible heir

DUBAI Sat Dec 1, 2012 7:47pm GMT

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has moved his chief of staff, seen as a potential successor and a target of criticism from hardline conservatives, to another job, according to the president's official website on Saturday.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie has provoked the ire of Ahmadinejad's conservative rivals, who accuse him of trying to undermine Iran's theocratic system. Ahmadinejad has defended his closest aide throughout the attacks.

In a statement on Saturday, Ahmadinejad thanked Mashaie for his service, appointing him to a position in the Non-Aligned Movement, the 120-member bloc of countries whose rotating chair is held by Iran.

"I consider knowing and working with you to be a divine gift and great honour," Ahmadinejad wrote in the statement addressed to Mashaie.

Ahmadinejad, who has faced criticism from conservative rivals in parliament over his economic performance, is finishing his last year in office and by law cannot run again in presidential elections due in June 2013. Some analysts, and Ahmadinejad's rivals, believe he has been grooming Mashaie to succeed him.

Conservative politicians and allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have accused Mashaie of leading a "deviant current" bent on undermining the political role of the clergy, the ultimate authorities in Iran. He has been criticised for emphasising the nationalist strain of Iranian history and culture over religion.

Mashaie recently gave a speech praising Ahmadinejad and expressing hope for "lively" elections, Iranian media reported this week, boosting speculation that he is considering a presidential run.

In a separate letter, Ahmadinejad appointed vice-president Hassan Mousavi to be his new chief of staff.

(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati; editing by Jason Webb)

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