Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, an ongoing and constant battle has been raging between different factions of Iran’s ruling elites over whose opinion should have more sway with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Between 2005 and the presidential elections of 2009, this battle was fought mainly between ultra conservatives (who supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and reformists, ultra conservatives and moderate conservatives, and then again between ultra conservatives and reformists. Yet because the main issue revolves around the Supreme Leader himself, such debates have generally been held behind closed doors.
Not anymore.These days, the battle is being fought out in the open, but with a twist—the most visible opponents to the status quo are the ultra conservatives, who are now taking on Ahmadinejad.
‘In Iran, a new movement is appearing which wants to say that it’s more revolutionary than the Supreme Leader. This new movement wants to pit the supporters of Hezbollah (the original Hezbollah party, which is based in Iran and later had an offshoot in Lebanon) in the society against the Supreme Leader, and to make this movement problematic for him. This new movement doesn’t want to see the country in peace and tranquility. It even wants to vacate the surroundings of the Supreme Leader from others and only keep itself in his proximity. And when this happens, it will want to say that we are the only ones who stayed, therefore all authorities should be surrendered to me because I won 25 million votes.’
Who would make such radical remarks about the intentions of the president? It wasn’t the reformists Mehdi Karroubi or Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The comments were instead made on July 22 by Mehdi Mohammadi, the political editor of the ultra conservative Keyhan newspaper. Indeed, in the same speech, he went as far as to describe the movement behind Ahmadinejad as ‘the third pillar of sedition.’
What’s just as significant as what was said is the place where the remarks were made—in front of Ansar Hezbollah supporters, who are the backbone of the most conservative elements of the regime and staunch followers of the messianic Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.
All this is a far cry from the loyal support offered by Keyhan during Ahmadinejad's first and second elections as president. Little more than a year ago, Ansar Hezbollah meetings were the place for Ahmadinejad's most ardent supporters and meetings were used to give warning over the ‘seditious’ intentions of the reformists who hoped to undermine the legitimacy of the regime.
It would have been unthinkable back then (and probably outright dangerous) for a person to stand up and criticize Ahmadinejad at these meetings and accuse him of seditious ideology. The fact that a hardliner can now do so without fear indicates how much has changed.
But there might be more behind the concerns of the ultra conservative faction than Ahmadinejad's ambitions to become the sole party ‘in proximity’ to Khamenei—they are also likely worried over recent signs of stress between the president and his messianic mentor, Yazdi.
These strains were on display last week when Mohammad Nasser Saghaie Biriya, a close associate of Yazdi and Ahmadinejad's religious affairs advisor, handed in his resignation to the president. According to sources of Tehran-based Khabar online, Biriya resigned over differences between himself and Ahmadinejad over the issue of new government approved codes of clothing and hairstyles for men and women.
What’s particularly interesting is that Biriya handed in his resignation to Ahmadinejad after he had had a meeting with Mesbah Yazdi, suggesting that Yazdi backed his decision to distance himself from the president.
And the discord between Ahmadinejad and his former allies is bound to get worse. Esmail Rahim Mashai, Ahmadinejad's closest ally, recently warned that ‘we will be reaching a stage where, within a year, the supporters of Hezbollah will excommunicate Ahmadinejad’ (the remark prompted Keyhan’s Mohammadi to ask what the president might be planning to do that would lead to his excommunication from Hezbollah).
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine that Khamenei isn’t worried about the recent disputes amongst his most loyal supporters. After all, it doesn't bode well for his authority to have his president lock horns with former supporters and to be given notice that he could be excommunicated from the faction to which Khamenei's loyal Revolutionary Guard Corps Basij members belong.
It’s likely that these growing concerns prompted Khamenei to take the unprecedented step of issuing a new fatwa in which he described himself as the representative of the Hidden Imam (Mahdi), and which ranked his rulings alongside those issued by the Prophet Mohammed. Khamenei has been Supreme Leader for more than two decades, but until now he hasn’t needed to stamp his authority in such a public way as there was never any doubt who was in charge.
But just as Ahmadinejad has come under fire, so questions are now being raised about Khamenei’s position. As Morteza Nabavi, a former minister and a current member of the cultural commission of the conservative Osulgarayan (principalist) movement warned in an interview in May this year with online publication Javan: ‘There are a limited number of people on the political scene who are defending the position of the Supreme Leader.’
So, was Khamenei's decision to issue a new fatwa a sign of desperation? Either way he had little choice but to do so. The fighting within the regime is growing increasingly intense—so intense that perhaps even his ‘supreme’ voice and authority now lies at risk of becoming lost in the chaos.