* President’s media aide hits out at rival conservatives
* Reformist newspaper banned for 2 months for “insults”
* Deep rift between hardline factions that rule Iran
By Robin Pomeroy and Ramin Mostafavi
TEHRAN, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Iranian authorities shut down a reformist newspaper on Sunday after it published a scathing attack by an aide to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the president’s rival conservatives, the latest sign of a split in the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic.
Tehran’s prosecutor’s office ordered the daily Etemad to close for two months for “disseminating lies and insults to officials in the establishment,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
One of the main reasons for the ban was an interview with Ahmadinejad’s media adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr, Fars quoted Etemad manager Elias Hazrati as saying.
In the interview Javanfekr hit back at critics who accuse Ahmadinejad of being in the thrall of a “deviant” circle seeking to undermine the Islamic clergy, saying they had “poisoned” politics and implying many were corrupt.
“What have we ‘deviated’ from? Yes, we have deviated from those friends, from their beliefs, behaviour and interpretations,” Javanfekr told Saturday’s Etemad. “If they meant the deviant current is a deviation from their beliefs, we confirm it.”
The counter-attack, published verbatim over three pages in Etemad, signalled the determination of Ahmadinejad’s camp to fight back as Iran gears up for parliamentary elections in March.
With the opposition “Green” movement crushed after protesting Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election, the battle for power in Iran is now between rival conservatives -- the traditional religious hardliners and the more populist Ahmadinejad camp.
That rift became more apparent after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forced Ahmadinejad to reinstate the intelligence minister he sacked in April -- a move seen by the president’s critics as a political manoeuvre.
Since then parliament and the judiciary have moved against the president, with lawmakers threatening impeachment and prosecutors arresting some people on the fringes of his faction.
Rebutting accusations that Ahmadinejad’s faction sought to undermine Iran’s clerical ruling system, Javanfekr said that the president had been endorsed by the supreme leader.
“The great leader of the revolution called Ahmadinejad’s government the government of work and effort. If they believe the government is not serving people it is better that they say they have a problem with the supreme leader,” he said.
Analysts say that Khamenei prefers to keep Ahmadinejad in place rather that allow his rivals to unseat him, jeopardising stability at a time of economic difficulties and the risk of popular unrest spilling over from the nearby Arab world.
But Javanfekr said Ahmadinejad was far from a spent force and retained public support that meant he did not need the support of conservatives who backed him in 2009 as the best bet against a strong showing by reformists.
“It was not us who were ungrateful, they were the ones that did not acknowledge Ahmadinejad and his government ... Ahmadinejad has popularity and does not owe them anything,” he said.
Javanfekr criticised the treatment of Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, an ally of Ahmadinejad’s top aide, who was arrested in June, saying he had been held in solitary confinement and suffered mental and physical consequences.
Etemad was among the few reformist papers still publishing after the June 2009 election. It has suffered temporary bans since for alleged violation of media law -- something critics say is a catch-all offence used to suppress dissent. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)