TEHRAN (Reuters) - An Iranian cleric criticised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday for pursuing foreign policy that favoured slogans over diplomacy ahead of a parliamentary election that will test the leader’s popularity.
Hassan Rohani, who lost his job as chief nuclear negotiator after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, did not mention him by name but the remarks were clearly directed at the president, who critics say has isolated Iran over a nuclear row with the West.
“Foreign policy does not mean chanting slogans. Foreign policy does not mean using fiery words. Foreign policy does not mean increasing threats against us,” Rohani said in an address.
Critics say Ahmadinejad has encouraged two rounds of U.N. sanctions with his regular speeches berating the West, which fears Iran wants nuclear bombs, rather than taking a more tactful approach to convince the world Iran’s aims are peaceful.
World powers are considering a third sanctions resolution, a move Ahmadinejad has brushed off. But economists say businesses face higher trade costs and investors are increasingly wary.
“We cannot say we want to be developed but, at the same time, we don’t want to interact with the international community,” Rohani said. “We can be developed if we can control inflation.”
Rohani, an ally of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who lost to Ahmadinejad in 2005, is a member of the reformist camp, which regularly criticises the president.
The March 14 vote is widely seen as a test of Ahmadinejad’s popularity, which has been hurt although mainly because of his economic management and double-digit inflation. The race may indicate his chance for re-election in the 2009 presidency race.
Ahmadinejad declared victory when the U.N. nuclear watchdog said last week it had resolved a list of ambiguities about Iran’s nuclear work. But the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had to cooperate more to clear up all doubts.
On Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in foreign policy and other state matters, praised the president on the nuclear issue. He also took aim at those who in the past counselled compromise.
When Rohani was chief nuclear negotiator, Iran temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, the West’s main demand. The president says such compromises encourage the West to seek more.
Ahmadinejad has won some praise in the region, where many complain about U.S. Middle East policy.
Ahmadinejad has visited several Gulf Arab states to try to boost ties with Sunni Muslim governments traditionally suspicious of Shi’ite Muslim Iran. He will become the first Iranian president to visit Iraq in a trip planned for next week.
But Rohani, one of Khamenei’s representatives on the policy-making Supreme National Security Council, questioned whether Ahmadinejad was winning Arab and Muslim friends.
“If we want to be a role model for the Islamic world, have we been successful? Are regional countries and Islamic countries looking at us as a model now?” Rohani asked.
This month, Rohani took aim at Ahmadinejad by suggesting he encouraged “superstitious” practices surrounding the Shi’ite belief in the return of a 12th Imam as a saviour. Ahmadinejad often refers in his speeches to the returning Imam, or Mehdi.
Rohani described how some people set a spare place at the dining table for the Imam or leave an empty carpet for prayer beside them. “What game (of) superstition is it that they’ve got going?” he was quoted as saying by Kargozaran newspaper.
Reporting by Parisa Hafezi, writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Elizabeth Piper