Iran's supreme leader appears to have strongly endorsed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term as president, a development sure to unsettle Iranian liberals and Western officials hoping for an end to his term in elections next spring.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric who is the nation's ultimate authority on matters of religion and security, told Iranian officials to begin planning for another four-year term, Iranian state media reported Monday.
"Do not think that this year is your final year," Khamenei told Cabinet ministers on Saturday, according to a report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "In other words, imagine that in addition to this year, another four years will be under your management, and plan and act accordingly."
Relations between the U.S. and Iran have reached a nadir with the rise of Ahmadinejad's ideologically fervent team in Tehran and ambitious neoconservative policymakers in Washington. Ahmadinejad's reelection would damp hopes that new administrations in Washington and Tehran could untangle 30 years of hostility and defuse a crisis over Iran's nuclear program without military confrontation.
Khamenei also implicitly praised Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear issue, saying the president has stood up to the West and rejected its demands for concessions.
Iran and the West are at a standoff over Tehran's drive to master the enrichment of uranium, a step in building a nuclear energy program or an atomic bomb. Iran's pursuit of the technology has incurred three rounds of relatively mild United Nations Security Council sanctions, further isolated Iranian businesses and scared off foreign investment in the country's vital energy sector.
Iran's political system blends elements of a theocracy and a democratic republic, with candidates for office vetted by committees of jurists and clerics. Though the supreme leader exercises enormous influence, an elected parliament proposes laws and the president and his Cabinet run day-to-day matters of state.
Khamenei's endorsement of cleric Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri for president failed to sway voters in 1997, when a massive tide of discontent brought reformer Mohammad Khatami to power. But most analysts say Khamenei successfully tilted the table in favor of Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Though Ahmadinejad was elected on an agenda of improving the lives of poor Iranians, he instead dived headfirst into foreign policy, taking the lead in lambasting the United States and Israel, and traveling the world.
He is scheduled to travel this week to Tajikistan, to participate as an observer at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and then to the United Nations next month. The new U.N. session is likely to have another round of sanctions against Iran on its agenda.
Ahmadinejad's allies fared poorly in 2008 parliamentary and 2006 local elections, which were dominated by so-called pragmatic conservatives.
He is often the butt of jokes, and even some conservatives describe him and his team with derision. "I feel infuriated whenever I hear him talking on state television," said Saeed abu Taleb, a conservative filmmaker and former lawmaker. "He speaks in an immature way. He has no economic or political plan for the country."
Recently, a conservative Iranian website reported that Ahmadinejad's new interior minister, Ali Kordan, had submitted a fake honorary degree filled with spelling errors from Oxford University as evidence of his qualifications.
Critics accuse Ahmadinejad of badly mismanaging the country's affairs. In a nation blessed with enormous oil and gas reserves, daily power outages have become the norm.
"This has nothing to do with sanctions. It was just Ahmadinejad's mismanagement," said Said Laylaz, a Tehran economist and journalist often critical of the president.
Ahmadinejad's brash style and willingness to ladle out low-interest loans and grants to key constituents have endeared him to some conservative voters in rural and poor urban districts. But some observers warn that the largesse may not ultimately pay off.
"Ahmadinejad is spending oil revenues on populist policies," said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a Tehran social scientist. "He is giving money to the poor, but they have seen no improvement in their living conditions. Real estate prices have jumped, and the poor are getting poorer."
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.