Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, giving a speech in Tehran, has called for an end… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Tehran and Baghdad — Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a public endorsement of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday as he looked to resolve a months-long rift among the country's conservative power elites.
"While there are weaknesses and problems … the composition of the executive branch is good and appropriate, and the government is working. The government and parliament must help each other," Khamenei said in an address to members of parliament shown later on state television.
The pronouncement by Khamenei, the country's most powerful figure, has followed a period of turbulence between him and Ahmedinejad, his onetime political favorite.
At its heart is a potential struggle for power between the firebrand president and Khamenei's conservative clergy, who are wary of Ahmadinejad's messianic strain of Islam and his populism. They worry his tendency for incendiary talk could threaten their long-term interests, if not render them obsolete.
The broadcast of portions of Khamenei's speech seemed designed to settle the crisis, but it also laid down a strict warning for Iran's president about not overstepping his boundaries. "When the law is passed, the government must implement it with full power and without any excuse," Khamenei said.
Khamenei warned Iran's political camps, with memories still fresh of the popular protests after Ahmadinejad's disputed June 2009 reelection, against playing dirty games with the parliamentary elections, scheduled for next spring.
"Nobody is allowed to interfere in the election," he said.
Political observers believe that Ahmadinejad is charting his way forward even as Khamenei's allies have tried to cut him down. "As a lame duck in power, he cannot get more room to maneuver," said Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a political scientist in Tehran. He predicted hard times for the president: "He is no longer the supreme leader's blue-eyed boy."
Ahmadinejad's conservative foes feel the president has gone over their heads to ordinary Iranians and rank and file in the country's Revolutionary Guard military units. With the country's economy a mess, they are convinced Ahmadinejad, whose term ends in 2013, would be happy to be dismissed or forced out in order to present himself as a figure sabotaged by higher powers.
"If he is toppled by parliament, he would be a hero for his grassroots [supporters] and mobs, but if he stays in power — and he will stay — he can claim that his enemies and critics within the system do not allow him to work properly," said an analyst, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
His enemies suspect that Ahmadinejad is determined to remain a major power even after he leaves office and not fade in importance as his predecessors did. Whether he follows a path similar to former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who served two terms and then became Russia's prime minister, his opponents are sure he will not to go quietly.
"I think Ahmadinejad and his cronies have at least a 10-year plan," the analyst said.
The best hope for his rivals is to try to stifle the president through the 2013 elections, the analyst added. They fear that Ahmadinejad could try to use additional food and fuel subsidies to cement his support among poor Iranians, even if it further sets back an already-tepid economy.
In the bid to contain him, the conservative clergy's backers have gone after his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, accusing him of sorcery and corruption.
Suspecting that Mashaei was under electronic surveillance, Ahmadinejad attempted to sack his intelligence chief in April, according to analysts. Instead Khamenei overruled him. But rather than submit, the president fired three members of his Cabinet and named himself caretaker minister for the powerful oil and gas portfolio. That move was thrown out by the country's constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, but the president ignored the body and continued in his caretaker role.
What happens with Ahmadinejad's chief of staff may well decide the president's fortunes and derail any plans to get their supporters elected in the next parliament.
"If his close crony, Mashaei, is arrested, President Ahmadinejad will be in an even smaller box," said Bakhshayesh, the political scientist. "If Mashaei remains in power as adviser to the president, then they can go ahead with their hidden agenda to win the majority of seats in the parliament."
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Parker from Baghdad.