TEHRAN Iran's top authority told politicians on Friday to stop squabbling that was undermining the government, in a fresh sign of support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet before the 2009 election.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tends to stay above the fray of day-to-day politics. But this was the second time in less than a month he had made a speech backing Ahmadinejad and his government, under threat of more U.N. sanctions as the United States and its Western allies seek to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear plans.
Addressing worshippers in a Friday prayers sermon, Khamenei did not mention the president by name but warned against destructive and unfair criticism of Ahmadinejad's government.
Public divisions in Iran could be used by those "who oppose the system of the Islamic Republic", he said in the sermon, which was broadcast by state media.
"If anybody has plans for the future ... they should say it. If they have solutions to existing problems, such as the problem of high prices and inflation, they should say it. Ruining officials and the government is not in (Iran's) interest."
Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, has previously praised Ahmadinejad in particular for his handling of the nuclear issue. The president on Thursday repeated his vow that Iran would press ahead with its uranium enrichment program, brushing aside the threat of more sanctions.
The West says Iran wants atomic warheads. Tehran denies it, saying it wants nuclear energy solely to generate electricity.
The president and some of his allies in government have come in for stern criticism, particularly over surging prices, as politicians warm up for next year's presidential election when Ahmadinejad is expected to run for another four-year term.
"My worry is not that something is being said and there is criticism of somebody ... my worry is spreading unfair attitudes in society," Khamenei said. "I am not saying this to a specific person, group or party, I am saying this to everybody."
"It is not necessary for a confrontation of those supporting a person or group and those opposed to be destructive," he said.
Such a show of support by the leader could influence loyalists, like the Basij, a religious militia estimated to be 12 million strong in a country of 70 million, analysts say.
Khamenei said ideas to tackle economic issues, like inflation, were best discussed initially by experts in private.
Inflation has soared to 27 percent, from about 11 percent, since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. It is the number one gripe for most ordinary Iranians. Economists mainly blame it on profligate spending of Iran's windfall oil revenues.
The poor have been hit hardest by inflation, analysts say. But they add that government spending has often been most obvious in poor areas, particularly provinces, so Ahmadinejad still has his backers. Opinion polls, however, are unreliable.
Khamenei in late August told Ahmadinejad to "work as if you will stay in charge for five years", not just the year left to run on his current term. Khamenei also mentioned inflation in that speech, asking the government to work to curb price rises.
One of Ahmadinejad's close allies, Vice-President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, has created a storm by saying Iran was friendly with all people, including those of Israel, Iran's sworn enemy. The president said the remarks were misrepresented.
Without naming Mashaie, Khamenei also mentioned the row saying the remarks were not right but the dispute should end.
"Somebody ... makes comments about those people who live in Israel. Of course, this is a wrong remark," he said, adding: "The issue should be finished."
(Reporting by Zahra Hosseinian, writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Mark Trevelyan)