President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday he is suffering from exhaustion and two allies said he was suffering under the strain of his job, in a rare disclosure apparently designed to combat rumors the hardline leader is more seriously ill.
A parliament member who confirmed Ahmadinejad's illness accused opponents of using it as an excuse to cast doubt on whether the increasingly unpopular president will run for a second term next year.
"Those who use such a natural issue for psychological warfare will fail" to gain support in public opinion, said Parliament member Mohammad Ismail Kowsari. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, every Iranian president has been re-elected to a second term, except the first one, Abolhasan Banisadr, who fled the country in 1981.
The months ahead are critical for Ahmadinejad if he wants to try to rebuild his political base and rebut critics who point to his unfulfilled campaign promises, including his pledge to extend Iran's oil revenues to poorer provinces around the country.
With more than 10 percent unemployment and 30 percent inflation, Iran was unable to bask in record-high oil prices earlier this year. And now with oil prices falling, Iran is certain to face a budget squeeze that could severely complicate Ahmadinejad's last months before he faces re-election.
Ahmadinejad is also confronting questions about his uncompromising stance with the West over Iran's nuclear program, which has severely soured international relations. The U.N. has also placed three rounds of sanctions against Iran since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 over Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
Rumors that Ahmadinejad was seriously ill have been popping up on some Iranian Web sites affiliated with the president's opponents for several months. A cleric who supports him, Ayatollah Abolqasem Khazali, had even warned Ahmadinejad that his work habits could lead to hospitalization.
But a flurry of new rumors appeared after Ahmadinejad, who turns 53 on Monday, canceled a speech on Wednesday and did not attend a Cabinet meeting the same day.
Ahmadinejad did attend a religious ceremony on Saturday in Tehran, though he looked tired as he greeted supporters. State TV also showed him receiving credentials of three foreign ambassadors on Sunday.
"Thank God, I do not have an illness. Exhaustion is possible, but no illness," Ahmadinejad told a reporter on the sidelines of a meeting in Tehran. The footage was aired on state television Sunday night.
"Of course, we are also human beings, and sometimes we catch a cold," he said.
Earlier, Kowsari, an ally of the president, said the strain of his job had made Ahmadinejad sick, according to the state-run news agency, IRNA. But he downplayed the seriousness of Ahmadinejad's fatigue.
"The president will eventually get better and continue working," said Kowsari, who accompanied Ahmadinejad last month to the U.N. General Assembly. "Every human being can face exhaustion under such a workload."
Ahmadinejad, who is known for working long hours and getting little sleep, has low blood pressure and has gone to the hospital occasionally to seek treatment, said Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, the Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
"Even if you are immortal, you will suffer from working so much. ... That is what has happened several times to Mr. President over the last few years. However, he is up and about and fresher than us right now," he told reporters Sunday.
Ahmadinejad has grown increasingly unpopular in Iran, even among some conservatives who say his policies have not done enough to help the ailing economy. In recent weeks, some supporters of Ahmadinejad have been discussing potential candidates for the June 2009 election, implying that the sitting president is not their automatic choice.
Earlier this month, a prominent conservative analyst Amir Mohebian said conservatives now consider "going beyond Ahmadinejad a wise possibility."
Some reports in October also said a group of conservatives discussed the possible candidacy of Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, a top conservative cleric close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
In August, Nateq Nouri publicly criticized Ahmadinejad's economic policies, saying they threaten to keep Iran from its goal of becoming a regional superpower by 2025.
Javad Daliri, an independent political analyst, said Ahmadinejad would definitely run for re-election but faced the possibility of competition from other conservatives.
"Among conservatives there is criticism over Ahmadinejad's domestic and foreign policies. Also many conservative figures were not invited to the Ahmadinejad's administration, despite their expectations," he said.