A hug that strikes a sour note for singer

Alireza Eftekhari, a popular singer, says he needs to leave because he and his family have been mistreated since he embraced the president at a performance.

TEHRAN // Some Iranian artists emigrate because the government does not tolerate their political views or their art, but Alireza Eftekhari, a popular singer, says he needs to leave because he and his family have been mistreated since he embraced the president at a performance.

"I have decided to leave the country and live in France," Eftekhari said last week, according to the Khabaronline news portal. Eftekhari's troubles began three weeks ago when he embraced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a ceremony to mark Reporters Day. Mr Ahmadinejad had walked to the stage to greet the artist and praise his work after he had performed. "I love you, Mr President," the government news agency had quoted Eftekhari as telling the president. The agency's report of the encounter and photos of the embrace were quickly posted on many news portals. Both his fans and opposition supporters soon filled the websites with comments.

"Mr Eftekhari has chosen not to talk about those who have ill-treated him and his family, but it is not hard to guess what or who he may be referring to," an observer who follows Iranian politics closely said. The embrace "has been taken as offering political support and approval", the observer said. "That is something many among the opposition supporters are not prepared to forgive or forget, even for the sake of his art."

A Facebook page has been devoted to the incident and is filled with harsh comments and insults. The postings are "quite revealing of what he and his family must have been facing", the observer said. "The publicity stunt went wrong for the president and caused trouble to the artist," he said. Befriending the president and his men has cost other artists, too. A few months ago, Hedieh Tehrani, an actress, was harshly criticised by the opposition media after a photograph of her sitting next to Mr Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was published.

The picture had been taken during a photography exhibition by Tehrani. Mr Mashaie had provided her with a government loan to stage the exhibition. The actress had supported the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi in last year's presidential elections. Some analysts believe the president's attempt to befriend Eftekhari and the financial assistance offered to Tehrani must be seen in the context of the presidential election to be held in three years.

One analyst said Mr Ahmadinejad and his staff realise the importance of having good relations with celebrities. "They are planning long-term. There's been no nomination, but the campaign has begun already," the analyst said on the condition of anonymity. "The troubles that Mr Eftekhari claims he is having for befriending the president or the criticisms Hedieh Tehrani has had to face, however, show that it is not going to be easy to use celebrities to get votes," he said. "Celebrities will think twice before risking the loss of fans considering the negative reactions that siding with the government camp has caused some of them."

Eftekhari's troubles got worse when blogs and websites spread word that he intended to offer a new recitation of Mohammadreza Shajarian's greatly loved Ramadan prayer. The prayer had for three decades always been aired by state radio and television every day before iftar. This year when they decided not to play Shajarian's prayer, his fans assumed that Eftekhari wanted to undermine the opposition's beloved singer. Eftekhari quickly dismissed the story and spoke admiringly of Shajarian, who publicly supported Mr Mousavi in last year's presidential elections.

In an interview with BBC's Farsi television last summer, Shajarian said he considered himself the "voice of the dust and moat". Just days earlier in his victory speech in a Tehran square brimming with chanting supporters, Mr Ahmadinejad had called the opposition protesters "dust and moat". "It's not hard to see that the opposition and the government are fighting their battle on different levels, including who gets the most popular celebrities on their side," the analyst said.