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ANALYSIS - Discontent seen behind "attack" on Iran president
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Economic or ethnic discontent may lie behind an apparently amateurish attack on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's convoy on Wednesday -- if such it was -- rather than any plot by militants or foreign foes to kill him.
Ahmadinejad, one of Iran's most divisive leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, is defying tougher sanctions over his country's nuclear programme, but is under fire from reformist and conservative critics of his foreign and economic policies.
His disputed re-election in June 2009 provoked huge street protests that were crushed by security forces led by the elite Revolutionary Guards. Defeated candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi always urged their supporters to avoid violence.
A source in the president's office said Ahmadinejad survived unhurt when a home-made explosive device was thrown at his motorcade as it drove through the western city of Hamadan.
Some Iranian media denied there had been any attack at all, or sharply toned down their initial accounts of the blast.
The semi-official Fars news agency, after first reporting a man had hurled a home-made grenade, later said a firecracker had been set off by a man who was "excited" to see the president.
There was no official word on who was behind the bang and no claim of responsibility. Speculation about possible culprits ranged from foreign intelligence services to Iranian ethnic militants and other domestic opponents of Ahmadinejad.
Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA group, linked the incident to "growing discontent" with Ahmadinejad's rule, even among some of his core constituents.
"This happened in a provincial area where he's supposed to be more popular. If he gets people riled up there, then that's not good," he said. "Now the conservatives are turning on him because of the economy and the position Iran is in because of the fourth wave of (United Nations) sanctions."
There have been no previous confirmed attempts on the president's life. In December 2005, Iranian authorities denied reports that Ahmadinejad had been the target of assassins in the lawless southeastern region of Baluchistan.
The Iranian leader may blame outside powers such as Israel and the United States, but the small scale of Wednesday's blast suggests that even a disgruntled loner could have done it.
"It's not well-organised. It's an individual attempt, not a group," said Dubai-based security analyst Mustafa Alani, who pointed to ethnic Kurd or Baluch discontent as a possible cause.
He predicted that Ahmadinejad would seize on the affair as evidence that he is being targeted by foreign enemies. "They (the Iranians) will pin it on the Americans or Israelis."
Ahmadinejad declared this week that the Israelis had him in their sights. "The stupid Zionists have hired mercenaries to assassinate me," he told a conference in Tehran on Monday.
The populist Iranian leader has toured the provinces more than any of his predecessors, often offering cash, loans or local development projects to consolidate his support.
"We will have to see whether this is serious enough that he cuts back doing that," said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight. "There have been occasions when people have thrown things at him or heckled him, but that has been it."
Iran, the world's fifth biggest oil exporter, is feeling economic pain as the United States and the European Union add their own sanctions to milder U.N. measures adopted in June.
Tehran said last week it was ready to return to talks with Western powers on a nuclear fuel swap, shortly afer the EU had announced steps to block oil and gas investment.
Although Ahmadinejad faces domestic grumbles over inflation and unemployment, he enjoys the broad support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the powerful Revolutionary Guards.
"Although this incident is significant in itself, it should not destabilise Iran," said Marie Bos, Middle East analyst at Control Risks in London, arguing that a local group without international connections was most likely to have been behind it.
Oil markets shrugged off the fuss.
"I expect that any backlash there might be from Ahmadinejad will be far more important to the oil market than the initial attack itself," said Paul Harris, head of natural resources risk management at Bank of Ireland. "You would expect the oil market to react if there is any attempt to link the attack to the current tensions with the West and the ramping-up of sanctions."
The Iranian authorities have so far reacted in a guarded fashion to the motorcade incident, whether trival or not. Their opponents in exile predictably saw it as a sign of unrest.
"It is obviously a reflection of the fact that all is not well and control is not total, contrary to conventional wisdom," said Mehrdad Khonsari, a secular Iranian dissident in London.
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