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.

In the wake of this standoff, twenty-six top individuals around Ahmadinejad were arrested. The arrests stopped only after Ahmadinejad declared, in a statement on June 29, “There is a red line drawn around my cabinet…. If they continue with [the arrests]…I am duty bound to speak to the people.” This statement was widely seen as an attempt to present himself as anti-clerical to the average voter, while ensuring that any physical harm done to him would be placed at the Supreme Leader’s door.

For now, it appears unlikely that Khamenei will seek Ahmadinejad’s impeachment, for a number of reasons. First, such a move would call into question Khamenei’s own judgment in placing such trust in the president to begin with. Second, there are signs that the low-level recession of the past six years is entering a traumatic stage. Things are apparently so bad that the government has stopped publishing figures for the growth rate for the past two years. For its part, the IMF has predicted zero growth for the current year and an inflation rate of 22.5 percent. (Given the positive growth rate for the population, this means Iran has an actual negative growth rate.) Many economists believe the IMF’s predictions are optimistic given that they do not take into account the lifting of price freezes that began last June. In short, if Ahmadinejad is dismissed, Khamenei could well be held responsible for the abysmal economic performance by most voters.

Aside from Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, four other factions are preparing for the decisive battles ahead. These include the Green Movement, the various forces belonging to the Old Guard of the Islamic Republic, former hardline allies of Ahmadinejad in and out of government, and the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran.

Contrary to public perceptions outside Iran, Iran’s Green Movement is alive and well and more popular than ever, even as mass repression has forced movement activists to assume a largely underground existence. From the winter of 2010, when it became too dangerous to demonstrate publicly, to this past winter, when the movement again made a large showing in the streets, its considerable energies were redeployed in the cyber sphere—mostly in internal debates about strategy and tactics—and in individual acts of defiance, like graffiti-writing and campus activism.

Iran’s peculiar form of repression has proved both more efficient and more insidious than the tactics employed by other repressive Middle Eastern states. Unlike their counterparts in Yemen or in Syria, where the armed enforcers of the status quo are just out to protect their wealth and privilege, in Iran the enforcers actually believe they are doing God’s work on earth. And although Iran’s model of “soft repression” is quite different in nature from, say, Basher al-Assad’s crude indiscriminate murderousness, it is more efficient. Harsh torture techniques, solitary confinement and rape of activists, both male and female, have had a deeply chilling effect. Based on tallied numbers of detainees published by opposition websites, 15,000 to 18,000 people have been arrested, ranging from a few hours to two years, with a large percentage having been brutalized in detention.

Until February, the mantra of the Iranian regime was that the Green Movement was dead and buried. Khamenei himself had said so on October 11, 2010. Using the Koranic term "fetna"—meaning sedition—he told a crowd of several thousand supporters that the protest movement had expired. "After the election, the nation has become immunized against political and social microbes," he told his supporters. "Fetna has increased the people’s sagaciousness."

On February 14, the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, called for a day of solidarity with the Arab masses. To everyone’s surprise, an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people went into the streets, protesting peacefully and calling for their democratic rights. (These figures reflect a compilation of tallies from several parts of the capital where people take informal estimates.) In retrospect, calling the protest was a highly risky decision by Moussavi and Karroubi. Had the government opted for a bloody crackdown, it would have strengthened the hand of radicals within the opposition who advocate armed and violent forms of struggle—as opposed to the nonviolent forms favored by the movement so far. On the other hand, had there been no sizable showing of demonstrators protesting that day, it would have badly demoralized the remaining activists. 

As it turned out, fear of being branded as the likes of a Mubarak or Saleh forced the government to show considerable restraint. Still, the move cost the two Green leaders their freedom. Since then, they have been held under house arrest. They are also under constant threat of execution or murder:  For weeks after February 14, speaker after speaker in the Parliament and Friday Prayers called for the execution of the Green leaders. This alone has brought them grudging respect from the radical wing of the movement.

The next major player on the Iranian political scene is the so-called Old Guard—the forces that range from pragmatic conservative to conservative traditionalist to technocratic in orientation, but have in common their opposition to the hardline clerical-military bloc that was behind the 2009 electoral coup. They are naturally not very happy with Khamenei’s plans to purge them from the polity. At one end of the spectrum are former clerical leaders of the revolution like Rafsanjani and members of Ayatollah Khomeini’s household. At another end are top-tier technocrats like Parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

The fourth major sector is composed of the various hardline and far-right groups, many of whom are war veterans or members of the security and military establishments, who have parted ways from Ahmadinejad in the past few months. They are after Ahmadinejadism without Ahmadinejad.

Finally, there are the Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran. The RGCI has used the conflict between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to amass enormous power and resources at the expense of the other power centers and has grown quite independent of Khamenei. Although in public the Guards show fealty to the Supreme Leader, few doubt their growing distance from him. Khamenei’s diminished status can be seen in the fact that top personnel appointments in the Guards are now dictated exclusively by RGCI.  

All these factions and groupings are devising strategy for the upcoming Majlis (Parliament) elections set for next March 2.

At this point there is a tenuous lull holding on the political scene. But beneath the surface calm, battles are being waged by all sides. According to the Iranian press, more than fifty Ahmadinejad government officials have resigned their posts to prepare themselves for the parliamentary elections; several mosques are being used by Ahmadinejad loyalists to drum up support; and allied interior ministry officials are preparing to doctor election results. Meanwhile, Khamenei and his followers have started sending overtures to the Reformists. For their part, Reformists are sending mixed signals about their participation.

Over the past year, billions of dollars in cash subsidies have been doled out by Ahmadinejad to low-income families in rural and provincial areas. Such subsidies could be used to buy votes for candidates loyal to the president in March, the same way they were used in the 2009 election. Ahmadinejad has ceased his political provocations of late and is concentrating on hot-button social issues like gender segregation in universities and the morality police, which he says he now opposes. Behind this latest move lurks a cynical electoral strategy for capturing the middle-class vote, and making Khamenei look like a reactionary despot.

The risk for Ahmadinejad is that his continued defiance of Khamenei may be seen as more costly to the system than his removal from office before its expiration in the summer of 2013 would be. Already two juridical bodies—one at the Judiciary itself and the other at the Parliament—are busy compiling instances of law-breaking by his administration. Such a process could culminate in the president’s arrest.

Simultaneously, according to a Reformist activist who spoke to The Nation recently but declined to be identified, Khamenei’s forces have been encouraging Reformists to participate in the elections. “As long as a month and a half ago, we were considered as traitors and seditionists. Now they are saying if we take part in the elections, many of our candidates will not be disqualified,” the activist said. “I have even heard that they have implied a certain number of seats are to be reserved for us if we choose to run,” he added, laughing.

When former President Mohammad Khatami first laid out the Reformists’ conditions for participating in the elections on December 26, he was widely attacked and derided by the conservatives. (Among those conditions were freedom for political parties, freedom of political prisoners and detainees, and the opening up of the political space.) Khamenei himself took a swipe at Khatami. In a talk to the MPs, he said that the Reformists "have become pillars for anti-Islam, anti-Imam, and anti-Imam Hossein seditionists." The head of the hardline Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, who is charged with vetting the qualifications of all candidates, said of Khatami’s conditions, "These people are dreaming unfulfilled dreams," adding, "No one will need these people for the election."

But that was before the April clashes between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Now the same hardline forces that were dead set against the Reformists’ participation are scrambling to welcome them back. On July 26, Jannati said, "It is a sin to disqualify people without reason." His spokesman Abass Ali Kadkhodaei went so far as to encourage banned Reformist parties to run for the election. For the Reformist activist and his friends, who have been in and out of jail several times in the past two years, this presents a dilemma. Elections, even semi-free ones, can allow for grassroots activism and give popular organizations an occasion to reach out to new constituencies. And a well-organized minority presence in the Parliament can be used as an effective political tool. Still, there are pitfalls to taking part in the election.

“For one thing, if we refuse to participate in the election—whether Ahmadinejad is in office or is discharged of his duties doesn’t matter—it would be a lackluster election. Secondly, since they tend to bury their differences when we run, our absence would bring out all their differences into the open.” At the same time, according to the activist, a large participation rate could be used to bolster the regime’s image as an island of stability in a turbulent region. In other words, Reformists have important chips to play.

On July 10, the Reformist website Mihan ran a report on a speech by Khatami in which he had said that participation in sham elections would be useless. "We will not take part in the election," Khatami was quoted as saying. "As long as the same people oversee and run the election, it will certainly not be qualified as a clean election." He added, "How can we ignore the people’s rights? Even if the family of all those killed forgive those who have spilled the blood of their loved ones, we cannot." In the past month, this sentiment has been echoed by a host of Reformists as well.

Reformists have also upped the ante by adding a new condition for their participation: an end to, or at least a scaling back of, the Revolutionary Guards’ involvement in the political process. Today, the RGCI boasts many cabinet portfolios, more than half of the members of Parliament hail from it, and the intelligence apparatus is falling into their hands. And it was through the Guards’ paramilitary arm, the Basij militia, that the protests were violently suppressed. Thus, this latest demand has deep resonance both within the public and with many in the clerical class.

Certainly, there is reason for concern that the regime would run a largely cosmetic election, through which, in return for a few token Reformists gaining entry into the Parliament, it would regain its lost legitimacy. "This is a well-founded fear. But it should not stop us from at least giving it a try," explained the activist.

Much depends on the outcome of the battle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. If the latter is arrested, a sizable percentage of voters would likely boycott the election. If he is not arrested and his group is allowed to campaign vigorously, the right’s vote would be split, making it possible for the Reformists to win many seats. Either way, for as long as anyone can remember, it is the first time the regime is negotiating from a position of weakness.

"The ideal case for Ayatollah Khamenei would then be to use Reformists to rubber-stamp the election and get their supporters to the ballot box while guaranteeing them a minorities’ position in the Parliament," the activist said, explaining that they can use the threat of a boycott to “wring concessions from the regime." The Reformists, for now, may play their cards close to their chest, recalling that in the previous election they managed to achieve a strategic advantage over the right by not declaring their chief presidential candidate until the last few days before the deadline.

But if and when Ahmadinejad is ousted from power, everything changes—and all bets are off.