Iranian presidents threaten Khamenei at their own peril

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the first Iranian president to learn, the hard way, that it doesn't pay to fall afoul of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni.

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former president Mohammad Khatami have little in common. Mr Ahmadinejad, a rabble-rousing populist hardliner, is a world apart from Mr Khatami, a mild-mannered reformist with a bent for philosophy and a distaste for confrontation.

They are unlikely to be found breaking bread together, but if they did, talk might turn to something they have in common: the Supreme Leader as their supreme nemesis.

Mr Ahmadinejad got his latest walloping from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Friday's parliamentary "election". Amid the conservative factions vying in a contest of pre-screened political elites - rather than a genuine election - early reports indicate that Ayatollah Khamenei's supporters soundly defeated Mr Ahmadinejad's. Relations between the former allies had been deteriorating over the past two years in an old-fashioned struggle over power: namely, Mr Ahmadinejad wanted more at Ayatollah Khamenei's expense.

The struggle first emerged into the open last April when Mr Ahmadinejad dismissed an intelligence minister who was a close Khamenei ally, but tensions had been brewing. Mr Ahmadinejad had a habit of dismissing Khamenei allies and even snubbed the Supreme Leader by appointing his own close ally and relative, Rahim Mashaei, as his chief of staff with the knowledge that Ayatollah Khamenei distrusted him.

When Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the intelligence minister reinstated, Mr Ahmadinejad refused to attend cabinet meetings for nearly two weeks.

Mr Ahmadinejad and his circle of advisers had also taken to sometimes overt criticism of Iran's clergy and, even worse in the eyes of traditionalist clerics, they had made claims about the Hidden Imam, the Shia Muslim messiah figure. The Hidden Imam, Mr Ahmadinejad's advisers hinted, was in contact with the president - a red line for the official clergy of the Islamic Republic.

The most curious part of Mr Ahmadinejad's defiance was his clumsy embrace of Persian nationalism, replete with the symbols of the old pre-Islamic Persian kings. That sort of nostalgic nationalism is embraced by Iran's secular middle class, which generally detests Mr Ahmadinejad.

During the intelligence minister imbroglio, Ayatollah Khamenei unleashed his allies. Over the next several months, newspapers published salacious accounts of corruption among Mr Ahmadinejad's allies, dark tales of sorcery and djinns, claims of CIA complicity with the president's aides, and rebukes of his economic policies.

Parliament went on the offensive, condemning Mr Ahmadinejad's economic, foreign and social policy. Even some reformists - most of whom had been silenced or jailed - enjoyed the newspaper campaign. As one put it: "Ahmadinejad got a taste of what we've been living with over the past decade. I can't say I felt sorry for him though."

Next, the arrests began, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps began threatening Mr Ahmadinejad and his circle. Former top aides found themselves in jail. Others faced death threats. Mr Mashaei, Mr Ahmadinejad's top ally, became a punching bag for the Khameneist right.

Mr Khatami was watching this confrontation from a distance. The former president, who once had rock-star popularity and the ear of the world's leaders, is a shell of his former self. Largely silenced, he cannot even travel to offer his mild and uncontroversial bromides about dialogue among civilisations. His allies are in jail. Many of his top aides hoped he would speak out more.

He, too, had lost a battle to the Supreme Leader, though it was a fight that he did not instigate. The Supreme Leader feared Mr Khatami's adoring crowds, his reformist newspapers, his talk of "civil society" and so, beginning in April 2000, he launched an attack on Mr Khatami's policies and aides. In 2005, Mr Khatami left office with a whimper and a trail of disappointed admirers.

In a speech last October, Ayatollah Khamenei let the cat out of the bag. With two successive presidents giving him headaches, he concluded, why have a president at all? "There would be no problem in altering the current structure," Ayatollah Khamenei said, hinting that he could simply work with parliament, which would presumably elect a prime minister.

With Friday's "election", another piece of the Khamenei-IRGC state has been consolidated: a pliant parliament that will question the president aggressively on his economic policies. Ayatollah Khamenei is temporarily triumphant.

But this is not a healthy state. Its economy is deteriorating because of sanctions and mismanagement. The oil sector is on the decline. Politics are disordered and riven by factionalism. The populace is largely resentful and angry (pay no heed to the inflated 64 per cent voter participation). Iran's top Arab ally, Syria, is teetering. And it faces possible confrontation with the Middle East's most powerful military - Israel - alongside its main patron, the US.

Ayatollah Khamenei is fond of attacking the US in speeches as an arrogant bully out of touch with the realities of world. That sounds a lot like how the Khamenei-IRGC state is governing Iran.

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Washington think tank New America Foundation and a senior adviser at Oxford Analytica