Iran’s president raises eyebrows with behavior at Chavez funeral

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offers condolences to the mother of late President Hugo Chavez, Elena Frias de Chavez, during the Venezuelan leader's funeral Friday in Caracas, in a photo released by the press office of the Venezuelan presidency. The picture raised eyebrows in Iran because Islamic law dictates that a man should not touch a woman who is not a close relative.
(AFP/Getty Images)

TEHRAN -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, long at odds with Iran’s powerful clerical establishment, appears to have once again risked the wrath of the nation’s mullahs.

This time, Ahmadinejad flouted Shiite Islamic traditions while attending the state funeral in Caracas of the late President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of the Iranian president.

At the globally televised services in Caracas on Friday, a visibly weeping Ahmadinejad hugged Chavez’s grieving elderly mother, Elena Frias de Chavez.


Iran’s Shiite clerics hold that it is forbidden for a man to touch a female who is not a close relative, such as a wife, daughter or sister.

Ahmadinejad also bowed before and kissed Chavez’s flag-draped coffin, which had a large crucifix as its backdrop.

The images of a sobbing Ahmadinejad embracing Chavez’s mother were broadcast on satellite TV and were posted on various social media sites in Iran.

To outsiders, the president’s behavior may seem like a normal act of compassion or protocol. But Ahmadinejad’s enemies are unlikely to view it that way. The images raised a lot of eyebrows here.

The website of an anti-Ahmadinejad politician prominently displayed photos of the president at the funeral. Several clerics reportedly assailed the president’s behavior. But many people interviewed at random near Tehran University seemed to back Ahmadinejad’s action, labeling it a rebuke of the hard-line clerical establishment.

“I didn’t vote for President Ahmadinejad, but good for him,” said Hassan, 30, a teacher, who, like others, didn’t want his full name used for fear of retribution. “I am happy. He is getting back at the hard-liners.”


Said another man: “Ahmadinejad has a brave heart.”

Some saw humor in the episode.

“So did President Chavez convert to Islam?” joked Ali, a motorcycle courier. “Or did the president convert to Catholicism?”

Ahmadinejad had already annoyed clerics for calling Chavez a “martyr” and comparing him to exalted religious figures, including Jesus Christ and the Hidden Imam, a messiah-like figure in Shiite Islam.

Ahmadinejad, who is completing his second term, is barred by term limits from running in presidential elections scheduled for June. He is said to be backing the prospective candidacy of a top aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. But some observers doubt that the clerical-dominated Guardians Council, which vets candidates, will allow the president’s man on the ballot.

Ahmadinejad had clerical support when he won a disputed reelection vote in 2009. But the president has since alienated the religious establishment and some other former allies. His future after his current term ends is cloudy.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.


Western governments say Nigerian extremists executed 7 hostages


Under spotlight, cardinals pray on last Sunday before conclave

Amid Hagel visit, Karzai accuses U.S. of conspiring with Taliban