New ruptures emerged in Iran's government Sunday when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad angered fellow conservatives by abruptly sacking as many as four ministers who had opposed his choice for vice president.
Ahmadinejad later backtracked on his decision, saying he had fired only one minister, and blamed the media for creating the uproar.
Meanwhile, accounts surfaced of two more protesters dying in recent days. Outside the site of the canceled funeral service for another slain activist, clashes broke out between security forces and demonstrators alleging vote fraud in Ahmadinejad's recent reelection. Reformist leaders, meanwhile, sought a permit to hold a massive commemoration for those killed in the violence since the disputed June 12 presidential vote.
Ahmadinejad's latest personnel move suggests that he remains defiant in the face of the burgeoning reformist movement shaking the country and a weeklong campaign by conservatives against his pick for first vice president. It also highlights rising tensions between the president and fellow conservatives in parliament and elsewhere in Iran's political establishment.
The controversy marked the second time in recent days that Ahmadinejad has faced off against fellow conservatives and been forced to back down.
Conservative news agencies close to the government reported that he abruptly sacked his ministers of intelligence and culture and possibly two others early Sunday in what many considered retribution for the ministers' efforts to scuttle Rahim Esfandiar Mashaei's appointment as first vice president.
Hours later, Ahmadinejad reportedly changed his mind after a storm of criticism and conservative senior lawmakers' demands that he submit his entire Cabinet to a new vote of parliament if he changed more than one minister. They said he had to do so under the constitution, since he'd already replaced so many in his four-year tenure.
The president's office issued a statement saying that only Minister of Intelligence and Security Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei had been fired. Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, a dedicated hard-liner, announced in a blistering note late Sunday that he would resign immediately after receiving "verbal instructions" from Ahmadinejad that he was fired.
"I will not be present at the ministry from tomorrow," he wrote, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency, adding that he would be willing to be counted as a minister if supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wanted to prevent a vote of confidence on the current government.
Though Ahmadinejad had said he planned to reshuffle the Cabinet after his inauguration to a second term next month, the sudden nature of the dismissals just days before the government was to expire anyway was considered an insulting rejoinder to conservatives who had opposed Mashaei's appointment.
Some analysts have said conservatives opposed Mashaei, an in-law of the president who is in his innermost circle, because of friendly comments he made last year about the Israeli people. Others say the former Revolutionary Guardsman is a member of a secretive sect, the Hojjatieh, which has a messianic worldview so extreme that the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, outlawed it.
After bowing to Khamenei's request to remove Mashaei as first vice president, Ahmadinejad appointed him chief of staff.
On Sunday, Ahmadinejad also appointed as his special inspector Ali Kordan, who had resigned as interior minister last year after admitting he had tried to bolster his resume with a phony Oxford degree. Kordan will monitor the activities of the ministries and government.
Ahmadinejad's confirmation by Khamenei for a second-term is set for Aug. 4 and his swearing-in will take place the next day, a lawmaker announced. Protesters supporting opposition candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have vowed to stage another day of peaceful protest when Ahmadinejad is formally sworn in.
Dozens of Iranians have been killed and hundreds arrested in the weeks of unrest sparked by the election. On Sunday, reformist newspapers announced the death of Amir Javadifar, 24, a student of industrial management in the city of Qazvin. Another victim was Hossein Akbari, 20, a clerk at a publishing house and an orphan, who died after he was arrested July 17 in a protest that followed a Friday sermon, his employer, who is arranging the funeral, told The Times.
Both are believed to have died in custody.
Unrest broke out Sunday after authorities suddenly canceled a mourning ceremony for Mohsen Ruholamini, 25, a student arrested July 9 during a protest and who died in prison. Ruholamini's father is a scholar and a ranking advisor to Mohsen Rezai, a conservative politician and former leader of the hard-line Revolutionary Guard.
A reformist news website quoted former Revolutionary Guard chief of staff Hossein Alai, who is a friend of the family and attended the funeral, as saying that Ruholamini died of meningitis in Evin Prison after he was beaten badly, his teeth broken.
"Mohsen Ruholamini was killed because his crime was opposition to Ahmadinejad," said conservative lawmaker Hamid-Reza Katouzian, in another sign of growing opposition to the president from among parliamentarians who once supported him. He vowed that parliament would launch an investigation into detentions and interrogations.
As hundreds of black-clad mourners gathered in front of the mosque where the formal commemoration was to take place, anti-riot police stormed the sidewalks and dispersed the crowd, a witness said.
Enraged mourners chanted: "You have killed the children of our homeland. Death to you!"
One woman watching security forces clubbing the demonstrators shouted, "Death to the dictator!" before her teenage son cupped her mouth and pulled her away to keep her from being arrested, the witness said.
Mousavi and Karroubi announced that they had asked the Interior Ministry for permission to stage a mourning at the Grand Mosala Mosque in Tehran to commemorate the 40th day after the deaths of Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old aspiring tour guide whose death has become a symbol of the protest movement, and others killed in June 20 clashes.
"We have to note that our ceremony will include no speeches and we will ask the participants to remain silent while the Holy Koran is recited," the request said.
Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli, a staunch ally of Ahmadinejad, has rejected similar applications. Kazem Jalali, a conservative lawmaker and spokesman for the parliament's foreign policy and national security committee, told the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency on Sunday that Mahsouli had ordered police and plainclothes security forces to storm Tehran University's dormitories early June 14 in a raid that left at least five students dead.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.