BEIRUT, Lebanon – Reports about the health of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have stirred speculation about 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 the president had fallen ill because of overwork and exhaustion.
“Every human being can face exhaustion under such a workload,” lawmaker Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, an ally of Ahmadinejad, said in the interview. “The president will eventually get well and continue his job.”
The exuberant and media-hungry Ahmadinejad, who turns 53 today, missed several public appearances last week, although he appeared at several low-key events over the weekend.
The absences have prompted whispers that Ahmadinejad is on his way out. But Kowsari and others close to Ahmadinejad have accused his critics of trying to use what they describe as a routine illness for political advantage.
Observers in Tehran, the Iranian capital, cautioned not to read too much into news of the illness. Although Ahmadinejad is said to suffer from low blood pressure, there is no evidence that 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 for the job.
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 the country’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.