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Iran’s chief weaker in new term

In wake of disputed vote, nation’s supreme leader withholds symbolic gesture.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, kisses the shoulder of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after receiving the presidential decree for his second term.

AP photo

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader bestowed his formal endorsement on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term as president on Monday but withheld a powerful symbolic gesture — the kisses and close embrace that portrayed their bond four years ago.

The awkward and halting moment came when Ahmadinejad leaned forward, apparently to kiss the hand of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the supreme leader raised his left hand and gently diverted Ahmadinejad to kiss his robe. The uneasy body language reflected much of the political tension and collateral damage since the disputed June 12 election sent Iran into its worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Ahmadinejad limps toward his next four-year term as a hugely polarizing figure: backed by the Islamic system but scorned by millions of opponents who claim the vote was rigged. Khamenei, meanwhile, has been rattled for the first time by protesters questioning the near limitless power of the theocracy he controls.

Both now are battered and bound together against the pro-reform backlash. But it’s still a potentially testy relationship.

Khamenei appeared to signal he is willing to stand by Ahmadinejad — as he has since the election — but that the supercharged political climate requires new sensitivities to public opinion. Ahmadinejad also crossed a political line last month by resisting Khamenei’s calls to dismiss a top aide — whom Ahmadinejad eventually dumped.

After Ahmadinejad’s surprise election in 2005, Khamenei allowed him to kiss his hand in a show of profound loyalty. Then Khamenei drew him close and kissed him on both cheeks with a benevolent smile. This time, Ahmadinejad moved toward Khamenei but was offered only the chance to kiss the leader’s robe — a gesture of respect but far more restrained than four years ago.

“It’s as if Khamenei was saying, ‘Hey, listen. Don’t think that we are this close team we once were,’ ” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The state Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Ahmadinejad had a cold, suggesting this could be the cause for the more cautious reception.

Even the ceremony itself displayed Iran’s seemingly unbridgeable rifts.

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