January 28, 2010 2:00 am

Rival predicts Ahmadi-Nejad's exit

Mehdi Karroubi, one of Iran's senior opposition leaders, says Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the country's president, cannot survive his four-year term, predicting that the weakening economy and popular opposition will lead moderate forces in the regime to cut short his time in office.

Speaking in his apartment in affluent northern Tehran, where he says he is under virtual house arrest, the reformist cleric argues the president's populist policies have made Iran "too weak" for people to endure further unemployment and inflation.

"Considering the political and economic problems plus a controversial foreign policy, I personally believe Mr Ahmadi-Nejad would not be able to finish his term," Mr Karroubi told the Financial Times.

The 72-year-old cleric, who ran against the fundamentalist president in 2005 and 2009, is one of three opposition leaders who are under pressure from the regime not to back the opposition Green movement.

Mr Karroubi, along with Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who says last year's election was stolen from him, and Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president, are careful not to question in public the legitimacy of the government.

In the climate of repression that followed the mass protests after June's election, the opposition is playing a delicate game, trying to keep anti-regime sentiment alive while not provoking a fresh crackdown. His daily newspaper and office building were shut down after the election while about a dozen journalists and members of his political party, the National Trust, were arrested.

But in the interview, Mr Karroubi made clear he was not going soft on the regime. The hardline policies of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad had alienated intellectuals and also some senior clerics, he said. These would encourage the regime's moderate forces to come together soon and find a solution to overcome the post-election crisis, he said.

The solution could range from removing Mr Ahmadi-Nejad from office to restricting him or reshuffling the cabinet. "But knowing this man, I believe he would not change his behaviour," he said.

The comments reflect a new tactic by opposition leaders who fear the latest protests in the streets that targeted the whole regime rather than Mr Ahmadi-Nejad could threaten the survival of the Islamic republic and even Iran's territorial integrity.

Some senior fundamentalists have started lobbying for national reconciliation. Mr Moussavi recently said the only way for the regime to curb the turmoil was to devise new rules for free and fair elections, release political prisoners, allow press freedom and permit peaceful rallies.

Mr Karroubi admitted he saw no sign yet that regime leaders were ready to accept these proposals, but insisted that it would not be long before the regime would be under such pressure that it would be negotiating with the opposition.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, recently urged the "elites" - a clear reference to the opposition leaders - to put aside their "dubious" comments, indicating his reluctance to make any compromise. He has given Mr Ahmadi-Nejad full backing and calls the protests a conspiracy encouraged by western powers.

Many analysts believe that although the recent unrest has paved the way for changes in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei will change behaviour only if the poor join the Green Movement.

But it is not yet clear how opposition supporters would react to a deal over Mr Ahmadi-Nejad at a time when many are calling for the overthrow of the top leader and urge establishment of a secular state. Mr Karroubi said such an approach was "100 per cent wrong" and said the constitution still had the capacity to bring democracy compatible with Islamic rules. He said the 1979 revolution had "strong" roots that would help the regime not to collapse.

The opposition, which is denied permits for rallies, is now preparing to take over the next state-organised rally, due on February 11 to mark the 31st anniversary of the revolution.

Mr Karroubi said he would join his supporters in the rally. "Without any exaggeration, I can say I have no fears. This is because I strongly believe in my ideas," he said.

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