Middle East

Ahmadinejad under fire for consoling Chavez's mother

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad consoling Elena Frias de Chavez
Image caption Critics of the Iranian president have jumped on what they see as sinful and unbecoming behaviour

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is mired in a fresh controversy over both real and fake photos showing him consoling the grieving family members of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

During Mr Chavez's funeral in Caracas on Friday, Mr Ahmadinejad was photographed sympathising with Elena Frias de Chavez, 78.

While it is not a full embrace, the Iranian president and Mr Chavez's mother have their faces brushed against each other, with their hands clasped in a moment of shared grief. Several news agencies released photos of the unexpected scene.

Muslim men are by tradition forbidden to touch women who are not members of their close family.

Conservative critics, already irked by Mr Ahmadinejad's effusive eulogy for the leftist leader, reminded him that he has not only committed a sin, but also behaved in a way inappropriate for the president of an Islamic state.

They said it was another sign that Mr Ahmadinejad was influenced by the "deviant current", a term used to label his close aides, and increasingly himself, and distance him from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Photoshopped or not?

Iranian government spin doctors tried to deflect the criticism by claiming the photograph was faked.

Image caption The Photoshopped picture, on the left, was soon exposed

"They have doctored the picture or took it from an angle that appears to show they (Mr Ahmadinejad and Mrs Chavez) are in contact. There was no handshake," said Mohammadreza Mir Tajeddini, an aide to the president.

Then in an intriguing twist, a clearly Photoshopped version of the picture made the rounds on some Iranian websites. It showed Mr Ahmadinejad with an old balding man in the very same pose.

The president's supporters insisted this was the genuine photo, depicting an uncle of Mr Chavez, while the one with his mother was indeed Photoshopped.

But on close inspection, it's clear that the so-called uncle is the Egyptian opposition leader and former director-general of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei.

In real life, Mr ElBaradei is much taller than Mr Ahmadinejad, but in the doctored picture he appears significantly shorter than the Iranian president.

Hurried apology

In another baffling twist, Entekhab, a website that had earlier chastised Mr Ahmadinejad for the original picture of the president and Mr Chavez's mother, issued an unreserved apology to the Iranian president.

Image caption In reality Mohamed ElBaradei towers over the Iranian president

It blamed the British Daily Telegraph for "Photoshopping the picture amateurishly".

This was all the ammunition pro-Ahmadinejad websites and blogs needed. A few hours later, Entekhab withdrew its own apology, however.

"After seeing the picture of Ahmadinejad and the old man, one of our reporters thought this was the real photo. Believing that he has made a significant discovery, he published the story without informing his editors. Unfortunately, the photo showing Ahmadinejad and (Mrs) Chavez is genuine," read Entekhab's statement.

There is also another contentious picture published by anti-Ahmadinejad websites, falsely claiming it shows the president hugging one of Hugo Chavez's daughters.

The Iranian president's supporters are claiming a smear campaign to discredit Mr Ahmadinejad and his aides as they attempt to retain power in the June presidential election.

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