An aide to Iran’s president Mahmoud 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.
Esfandyar Rahim Mashaie, who survived criticism this summer for asserting that Iran is "a friend of the Israeli people", came under renewed fire from conservatives and from religious leaders for "insulting the Koran."
At a ceremony in Tehran on Nov. 8 on foreign investment in Iran's tourism industry, a dozen dancing girls clad in traditional clothes brought the Islamic holy book to the narrator on a tray.
Official ceremonies in the Islamic republic often begin with a recitation of excerpts from the Koran, but the fact that the book was carried to the narrator by dancing girls went down badly with many influential figures.
Mehdi Jahangari, Mashaie's deputy who organized the ceremony, resigned on Saturday. He defended his action by saying that "bringing the Koran on a tray is part of the traditions of the people in western Iran."
However, his resignation failed to end the storm of condemnation.
Not first storm
Laleh Eftekhari, who heads the "Koran" parliamentary group in the conservative dominated legislature, has asked President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to immediately fire Mashaie, Fars news agency reported on Sunday.
Two senior clerics, the Grand Ayatollahs Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani and Nasser Makarem Shirazi have condemned the ceremony.
"The insult to Koran is not acceptable," Ayatollah Golpayegani said on Wednesday, adding Mashaie "is not competent for the position."
Mashaie is not new to controversy. He created a storm in mid-July by saying Iran was friendly even to the people of Israel, Iran's sworn foe. He repeated the opinion in August.
The Islamic republic does not recognize Israel and Ahmadinejad has advocated the destruction of its arch-foe while describing the Holocaust as a "myth."
Many MPs and clerics demanded Mashai's resignation on that occasion but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened on Sept. 19 to halt attacks, while also admonishing Mashaie.
Ahmadinejad, the first non-cleric 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 football stadiums after clerical criticism.
He is expected to run for re-election 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.