Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei steps deeper into the political fray

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In the meantime, Mr. Ahmadinejad heads into his final months eager to land some punches on his opponents.

“We are witnessing a new precariousness in Iran’s internal politics,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

There’s no clearer evidence than Ayatollah Khamenei, whose hard-core followers believe is answerable only to God. Yet even he can’t seem to calm Iran’s political tempest with rare — and increasingly sharp — orders from on high.

It suggests a diminishing regard for Ayatollah Khamenei and the ruling clerics to fully set the political tone inside Iran — which could be the ultimate political legacy of Mr. Ahmadinejad from his defiance while in office and his possible gadfly role after leaving later this year.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s main worry is not whether the opposition can regroup after being hammered following the post-election unrest in 2009. Its leaders are under house arrest, and activists know they would face punishing reprisals if they return to the streets.

Instead, it appears Ayatollah Khamenei senses that the internal political rulebook could be under threat.

Mr. Ahmadinejad first broke taboos — and earned himself instant political enemies — by challenging the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei in 2011 over the appointment of the powerful intelligence ministry post. Since then, Ayatollah Khamenei has been gradually drawn into the mix despite the traditions of the supreme leader remaining aloof from day-to-day affairs.

It seems part of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tactics to hector Ayatollah Khamenei as a way to boost his status as an alternative pole of power, said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia.

Ahmadinejad … seems to have adopted a strategy of pressuring Khamenei to either force him out — which would be a confession to Khamenei’s poor judgment as the main support of Ahmadinejad — or live with Ahmadinejad’s continuous assaults on his position and close associates,” Mr. Nafisi said. “Either way, Ahmadinejad will turn out a winner.”

The unraveling of their relationship began when security forces crushed the protests over Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Mr. Ahmadinejad increasingly bristled at having to take a back seat to the ruling clerics, who control all key political and policy decisions.

A political temper tantrum in April 2011 — when Mr. Ahmadinejad boycotted meetings for 10 days to protest Ayatollah Khamenei’s intelligence chief appointment — opened the flood gates.

Dozens of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s political allies were arrested or pushed to the margins, effectively blocking his chances of having a protege on the ballot in June. Meanwhile, the political fortunes brightened for Ahmadinejad rivals, such as Mr. Larijani.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ahmadinejad stunned parliament with a crude videotape that purported to show a discussion over bribes that included Mr. Larijani’s brother. A week later, apparent Ahmadinejad backers hurled insults and shoes to disrupt a speech by Mr. Larijani in the seminary city of Qom.

On Friday, one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s close allies, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, used his nationally broadcast Friday sermon to urge authorities to take “strong action” in response to the incident.

“Give up these hateful disputes,” he told worshippers at Tehran University in an open reference to Mr.  Ahmadinejad and Mr. Larijani. “People are tired of your fighting.”

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