TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian authorities shut down a reformist newspaper on Sunday after it published a scathing attack by an aide to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the president’s rival conservatives, the latest sign of a split in the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic.
The aide, media adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was also sentenced to a year in jail and banned from journalism over a separate publication which was deemed to have offended public decency, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
Both incidents spotlighted a feud between Ahmadinejad’s camp and others in the conservative establishment that runs the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter and faces increasing international pressure over its nuclear activities.
Tehran’s prosecutor’s office ordered the daily Etemad to close for two months for “disseminating lies and insults to officials in the establishment,” according to Fars.
In the interview in Saturday’s edition, Javanfekr hit back at critics who accuse Ahmadinejad of being in the thrall of a “deviant” circle seeking to undermine the Islamic clergy, saying they had “poisoned” politics and implying many were corrupt.
“What have we ‘deviated’ from? Yes, we have deviated from those friends, from their beliefs, behavior and interpretations,” Javanfekr, who also heads the official Iranian news agency IRNA, told Saturday’s Etemad.
“If they meant the deviant current is a deviation from their beliefs, we confirm it.”
The counter-attack, published verbatim over three pages, signaled the determination of Ahmadinejad’s camp to fight back as Iran gears up for parliamentary elections in March.
Javanfekr’s lawyer told Reuters he had not been notified of the jail sentence and three-year ban from journalism imposed by the prosecutor’s office following a guilty verdict pronounced by the Press Supervisory Board earlier this month.
Abdollah Nakhaie said he would appeal the sentence which, according to the ISNA news agency, he has 20 days to do.
Javanfekr was convicted over an article published earlier this year on the historical origins of women’s Islamic dress.
The article, in a supplement to the Iran daily in August, contained an interview suggesting that chadors - the traditional black dress of devout Iranian women - had their origins in 19th-century Paris, rather than being prescribed by Islam.
The suggestion outraged traditional hardliners who had already accused Ahmadinejad’s faction of putting secular nationalist values ahead of its Islamic identity.
With the opposition “Green” movement crushed after protesting Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election, the battle for power in Iran is now between rival conservatives -- the traditional religious hardliners and the more populist Ahmadinejad camp.
That rift became more apparent after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forced Ahmadinejad to reinstate the intelligence minister he sacked in April -- a move seen by the president’s critics as a political maneuver.
Since then parliament and the judiciary have moved against the president, with lawmakers threatening impeachment and prosecutors arresting some people on the fringes of his faction.
Rebutting accusations that Ahmadinejad’s faction sought to undermine Iran’s clerical ruling system, Javanfekr said that the president had been endorsed by Khamenei.
“The great leader of the revolution called Ahmadinejad’s government the government of work and effort. If they believe the government is not serving people it is better that they say they have a problem with the supreme leader,” he said.
Analysts say that Khamenei prefers to keep Ahmadinejad in place rather that allow his rivals to unseat him and jeopardize stability at a time of economic difficulties and the risk of popular unrest spilling over from the nearby Arab world.
But Javanfekr said Ahmadinejad was far from a spent force and retained public support that meant he did not need the support of conservatives who backed him in 2009 as the best bet against a strong showing by reformists.
“It was not us who were ungrateful, they were the ones that did not acknowledge Ahmadinejad and his government...Ahmadinejad has popularity and does not owe them anything,” he said.
Javanfekr criticized the treatment of Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, an ally of Ahmadinejad’s top aide, who was arrested in June, saying he had been held in solitary confinement and suffered mental and physical consequences.
Etemad was among the few reformist papers still publishing after the June 2009 election. It has suffered temporary bans since for alleged violation of media law -- something critics say is a catch-all offence used to suppress dissent.
Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Editing by Mark Heinrich