TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's most senior dissident cleric said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive nuclear diplomacy had harmed the country, joining a chorus of criticism that has included even the hard-line leader's conservative allies.
The comments by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, released Monday, reflected a growing feeling among many that Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy.
Montazeri, 85, is one of a few grand ayatollahs, the most senior theologians of the Shiite Muslim faith. He had been the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, until he fell out with Khomeini shortly before his 1989 death after complaining about powers wielded by unelected clerics.
He said Iranians have the right to nuclear power, but questioned Ahmadinejad's dealings with the international community in obtaining it.
"One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom, not provoke it," he said, according to a copy of his comments made available to The Associated Press. "This (provocation) only creates problems for the country," he told a group of reformists and opponents of Ahmadinejad on Friday in the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of the capital Tehran.
Prices of fruit, vegetables and food staples have skyrocketed since the U.N. Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Iran in December for defying a resolution demanding that it halt uranium enrichment, a process that can produce material to fuel nuclear reactors or provide fuel for bombs.
"Some countries don't have oil and gas. Yet, they run their country and stand on their own. We have so much oil and gas but make useless expenditures work for others and don't think of our own people's problems and the price of basic commodities go higher and higher every day," Montazeri said,
Montazeri appeared to be referring to Ahmadinejad's foreign trips, the latest of which was to Latin America, and to Iranian financial aid to the Palestinians.
The Palestinian foreign minister for the Hamas-led government said in November while visiting Iran that Tehran had given his government more than $120 million in the previous year.
During Ahmadinejad's speech Sunday to present the budget to parliament, he said prices of staples such as tomatoes were lower than some people claimed and told people to buy from his neighborhood, not high-priced shops elsewhere.
Ahmadinejad was elected last year on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. And he has faced increasingly fierce criticism in recent weeks for his failure to meet those promises and for drawing the enmity of the international community with his aggressive handling of the nuclear issue.
The European Union on Monday called on "all countries" to enforce the U.N. sanctions.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said a coordinated enforcement of the sanctions was important "to keep pressure on Iran to accept the offer of the international community to come back to the negotiating table."
She told reporters that the 27-nation EU would implement the sanctions "as speedily and effectively as we can."
EU officials said the bloc would implement the measures in early February.
Despite the domestic pressure on Ahmadinejad for his anti-American rhetoric, the hard-line leader again launched into criticism of the United States, describing U.S. accusations against his county of meddling in Iraq as the "most ridiculous" of Washington's charges against Iran, state media reported Monday.