By Laurent Maillard

TEHRAN — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been put "under a spell" by his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, an ultra-conservative cleric was quoted by local media on Sunday as saying.

"I've told some of my close friends that I am more than 90 percent certain that (Ahmadinejad) has been put under a spell. This is not natural at all," Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, believed to have once been a mentor of the president, told the weekly Shoma.

"No sane person does such things unless his free will has been taken away," Mesbah Yazdi said in reference to a crisis that has erupted since mid-April between Ahmadinejad and the hardline conservative camp close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"His actions have no justification. When he has 10 friends... does it make sense to constantly defy nine of them and defend (the actions of the) tenth person?" Mesbah Yazdi asked in an allusion to Mashaie.

Mashaie, the president's top adviser and close relative who has worked alongside Ahmadinejad for more than 25 years, has been the target of a barrage of criticism from the conservative camp in past weeks.

Mashaie, who has been condemned for being too liberal, holding nationalistic views dating back to pre-Islamic Iran, and for having a great influence on the president, is now accused of leading a "current of deviation" aimed at destroying the Islamic regime.

Mesbah Yazdi said he sensed a "great danger" lingering over Ahmadinejad because of Mashaie.

"I do not know if it is (because of) hypnotism, a spell or relations with yogis. But there is something wrong," said Mesbah Yazdi.

"It is almost as if this questionable person (Mashaie) has put this man (Ahmadinejad) under a spell, as if he has wrapped him around his finger," he said.

The conservatives also accuse Mashaie of orchestrating the attempted sacking of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi in mid-April, which was vetoed by the supreme leader.

The aborted dismissal triggered an unprecedented political crisis in the higher echelons of Iran's regime, with Ahmadinejad expressing his displeasure by withdrawing from public life and official duties for 10 days.

Several conservative websites have recently hinted that Mashaie may be connected to the practice of dark magic, while the judiciary has announced the arrest of two "sorcerers" but stopped short of linking them to the chief of staff.

The rumours have gained enough momentum to prompt Ahmadinejad to deny them publicly.

"Those who have spoken in recent days about the influence of fortune tellers and jinn (shape-shifting spirits) on government were telling jokes," Ahmadinejad said on May 8.

Iran's first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi hit back hard at the accusation by the ultra-conservatives.

"Some people speak of sorcery and jinns and attribute them to the government. Is it possible to govern the country with sorcery and jinn? Is it possible to send satellites into the sky (using them)? Science is behind all these issues," Rahimi was quoted as saying in some local papers.

"How could they attribute such things to Dr. Ahmadinejad, the president and a (university) professor?" Rahimi added.

Another vice president, Hamid Baghaie, defended Mashaie against accusations of deviancy, describing them as "slander."

Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, who heads the powerful Guardians Council, a body that oversees elections, interprets the constitution and vets parliamentary legislation, warned Ahmadinejad on Friday that he could not protect Mashaie forever.

"Some people seek to deviate from and act against the country and Velayat-e Faqih (the supreme leader)," Janati said. "But there will come a day that the regime and the people will deal with them."

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