TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's president appointed his divisive confidant to a high-profile post Saturday in a move widely viewed as an attempt to boost the close aide's profile ahead of his expected candidacy in next year's presidential elections.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad named Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei the head of the secretariat of the Non-Aligned Movement, the bloc of developing nations that Iran took over the leadership of this year. The post raises Mashaei's political clout and gives him much-needed international experience.
Ahmadinejad cannot run in Iran's presidential elections in June because of term limits, and he is widely believed to be grooming Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son, as his successor when he steps down in 2013.
The decision to promote Mashaei is seen as a challenge to Iran's powerful hardliners, and is likely to inflame the simmering political dispute with presidential elections on the horizon. The hardliners denounce Mashaei as the head of a "deviant current" that they say is trying to undermine the country's ruling Islamic system and elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia and promote nationalism at the expense of clerical rule.
Mashaei is believed to have been at the root of a bitter political battle between Ahmadinejad and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over the choice of intelligence chief in 2011. The president boycotted Cabinet meetings for 11 days -- an unprecedented show of disrespect to Iran's leader, who hardliners believe is answerable only to God -- but finally backed down.
The challenge prompted many of Ahmadinejad's erstwhile conservative supporters to switch sides and join his opponents, thus weakening the powerbase of hardliners that the president depended on to secure his disputed re-election in 2009.
Ahmadinejad has paid dearly for challenging the ruling system. Dozens of the president's aides have been arrested or driven into the political margins. Hardline media also began to smear Mashaei, the president's protege, with some critics even claiming that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to fog Ahmadinejad's mind.
In his unusually long decree Saturday announcing Mashaei's appointment, Ahmadinejad employed an unusually flattering prose to praise his aide, calling him a "pious, patient man with a pure heart and crystal thoughts."
"I consider your excellency a competent, wise, honest man," Ahmadinejad said in a statement posted on his office's website. "Knowing and working with you is a divine gift and a great honor for me."
In contrast, Ahmadinejad released a very short separate statement to appoint Hasan Mousavi as Mashaei's successor to the post of the president's chief of staff.
Mashaei was at the heart of the dispute from the first day of Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009 when the president appointed him as his first vice president. Khamenei quickly stepped in and pressured Ahmadinejad to drop the appointment, and Mashaei was gone within the week in a stinging embarrassment to the president.
Ahmadinejad has widely been quoted in Iranian media as privately saying that it would be an honor for him to serve as first vice president under Mashaei.
Even with the president's support, it is unclear whether Mashaei, if he chooses to run, will make it onto the presidential ballot. All candidates in the elections must be approved by the hardline Guardian Council, a body whose key members are handpicked by Khamenei.
Many conservatives say Mashaei will likely be barred from running but others believe it could be a tough challenge for the ruling system to disqualify him from the vote.