TEHRAN (Reuters) -- A deputy to Mahmud Ahmadinejad has come under fire for attending a ceremony that involved actions deemed insulting to the Koran, a row that has given fuel to the Iranian president's opponents before next year's election.
Ahmadinejad is expected to run for reelection in June. But criticism over his economic management is mounting and he faces a more hostile parliament, which sacked his interior minister this month over a fake university degree.
In comments published on November 16, opponents targeted his vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who is in charge of a culture and tourism body, for hosting a ceremony where women in traditional dress carried in the Koran, Islam's holy book, to music. Media described the ceremony as a "dance."
"Violation of the sanctity [of the Koran] in the presence of Your Excellency's deputy and under his management...causes deep regret for every Muslim," the head of the Islamic Coalition Front, Mohammad-Nabbi Habibi, said in a letter to the president.
The front is a conservative party that previously backed the president but, along with some others in the broad conservative camp, has become increasingly critical of his policies.
Mashaie is not new to controversy. He created a storm earlier this year by saying Iran was friendly even to the people of Israel, Iran's sworn foe. Ahmadinejad had said those comments by his vice president were misrepresented.
The "dance" row offers the president's critics ammunition, one political analysts said. "It's like giving those unhappy with Ahmadinejad another piece in this jigsaw puzzle [to piece together against him]," he said, asking not to be named.
The analyst said it would particularly play into the hands of pro-reform politicians, some of whom are trying to convince reformist former President Mohammad Khatami to run in June.
Clerics, including several ayatollahs, which is a top Shi'ite religious rank, have also assailed Ahmadinejad's vice president. One described the ceremony as a "shameful" act.
Ahmadinejad, the first noncleric to be president for about a quarter of a century, has had prickly relations with clerics before. Early in his presidency he had to reverse a decision to allow women into soccer stadiums after clerical criticism.
A group of clerics who are lawmakers in parliament called in a statement for the president "to deal legally with those behind this action" involving the Koran, ISNA news agency said.
Other lawmakers have said Mashaie should be sacked. Even a party close to Ahmadinejad has voiced concern.
Ahmadinejad is facing heavy criticism for economic policies. He came to power in 2005 vowing to spread Iran's oil wealth but critics say lavish spending has fueled inflation and squandered oil earnings that should have been saved.