The fierce battle of wills between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his onetime loyalist, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that has had Tehran on edge for months appears finally to be coming to a head.
The conflict dates back at least to June 19, 2009, when Khamenei delivered a sermon that aroused the ire of his protégé, Ahmadinejad, who had just been re-elected amid accusations of massive vote fraud. In the sermon, Khamenei praised Ahmadinejad’s nemesis, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and ventured only mild criticism of Reformist leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was at the time aggressively challenging the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s victory.
Ironically, Ahmadinejad’s win had been engineered by an ad hoc coalition presided over by Khamenei himself and composed of a few archconservative clerics and members and high command of the Revolutionary Guards. In the face of the spectacular street protests staged by the Green Movement in the wake of the election, Khamenei had evidently concluded that the coalition had to abandon many of its goals, including the permanent removal of the republic’s Old Guard—symbolized by Rafsanjani—from all levers of power.
For Ahmadinejad, Khamenei’s sermon was an outright act of betrayal, an abandonment of their joint mission to institute a radical rightist militaristic regime. According to one media leak, reported on the Iranian website Alef, a disgruntled Ahmadinejad openly defied Khamenei’s authority in an August 2009 one-on-one meeting, in which he told the leader that most Iranians loved their president and not him, adding that he had lost six million votes in the election because of his association with Khamenei. From that point on, Ahmadinejad apparently decided to go it alone—culminating in an unprecedented showdown with the Supreme Leader this past April and June.
On April 17, Ahmadinejad abruptly fired intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi—Khamenei’s most powerful remaining ally in government—without first clearing the dismissal with Khamenei. This wasn’t the first time Ahmadinejad had made such a move. Earlier, he had fired ministers of interior, culture and foreign affairs without authorization from Khamenei. In each case, Khamenei had confined himself to expressing verbal disapproval.
This time, though, the Supreme Leader decided to fight for his man. In a private letter to the president, he reinstated the sacked minister to his former position. But Ahmadinejad continued to exclude Moslehi from cabinet meetings. Finally, in a publicized letter to the minister, Khamenei urged him to stay at his post no matter the pressure from Ahmadinejad.
Furious, Ahmadinejad sequestered himself at his residence for eleven days, all the while refusing to attend government functions and openly defying Khamenei’s orders. To appreciate the import of Ahmadinejad’s actions, one must realize that for millions of followers in Iran and elsewhere, Khamenei is not an ordinary mortal or an ordinary politician: he is a man endowed with mystical powers. At least that’s the image presented to world by Khamenei loyalists. It is therefore unthinkable for a radical Shiite fundamentalist to disregard the Supreme Leader in such a brusque manner.