Corruption charges against one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most trusted political advisers provided the latest evidence of deep rifts within the Iranian president's own conservative political camp.
RELATED:Focus on Iran: Who’s next on Ahmadinejad’s list? Ahmadinejad faces anger in Iran over firing of FM
The challenge by Ahmadinejad's rivals — one of them the head of the judiciary — could set the tone for a bitter fight leading up to the next big political moment in Iran, parliamentary elections less than a year away.
"This case isn't going to bring down Ahmadinejad, but it may get very ugly," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a regional political analyst at Emirates University. "It's a commentary on the troubled state of Iranian politics at the moment."
Ahmadinejad has faced a growing internal backlash from conservative leaders — including influential parliament speaker Ali Larijani. They are upset by the president's combative nature and deepening links with the vast military-economic network run by the Revolutionary Guard, Iran's most powerful force which led the crackdown on the reformist movement after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last year.
The political infighting escalated earlier this month when Ahmadinejad
suddenly dismissed his longtime foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, a
close ally of Larijani. Many lawmakers and others denounced the move as
further evidence of Ahmadinejad's steamrolling style. He dumped Mottaki
in apparent retaliation for disagreements that included control over
foreign ministry posts.
Shortly after Mottaki's firing, the judiciary headed by Larijani's
brother announced the corruption allegations against Iranian First Vice
President Mohammad Reza Rahimi.
The charges could do more damage to Ahmadinejad and the reputation he
has cultivated as aloof from Iran's powerful financial clans and
foundations, many run by the Revolutionary Guard.
The developments revealed the increasingly complex political maneuvering
within the Islamic Republic as it struggles with economic sanctions and
growing international pressure to curb its production of nuclear fuel.
The judiciary last week said Rahimi is facing corruption charges that
need to be investigated and will have to stand trial. The details of the
accusations against him have not been made public since. Rahimi quickly
denied the charges and was expected to present his side at a news
conference, possibly later this week.
On Monday, Ahmadinejad's office came to Rahimi's defense, saying that
his complaints against the accusations should be investigated, the
official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
But the rumblings have been coming for months against Rahimi, whose
position as the top of 12 vice presidents gives him authority to meet
visiting prime ministers and other dignitaries and lead Cabinet meetings
in Ahmadinejad's absence.
Some of Ahmadinejad's political foes have frequently taken pot shots at
Rahimi with allegations of financial misdeeds since a major
government-linked embezzlement probe opened in April. At the time,
conservative lawmaker Elias Naderan calling Rahimi the "leader of the
Now, a full-scale investigation and possible trial could become a
high-stakes proxy clash between Ahmadinejad and Larijani and his
backers, who include his brother, judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq
The immediate battles may be sporadic because all of Iran's political
establishment is currently engrossed in painful steps to trim government
subsidies, which has already pushed fuel prices up to 400 percent
The economic shock has brought waves of complaints against the
government from all sides. Reformists have claimed the billions saved on
subsidies will be funneled back to help boost Ahmadinejad and the
Revolutionary Guard. Even some hard-liners — Ahmadinejad's political
base — have said the price hikes are too fast and too steep.
The rifts point to the next big political test in Iran — parliamentary
elections in early 2012. The races will mark the first major balloting
since the accusations of vote-rigging after Ahmadinejad's June 2009
victory plunged Iran into its worst internal chaos since the 1979
It's still uncertain whether the opposition movement can rebound in some
form for the parliamentary campaign. But there's little doubt that
Larijani and his allies will make a run.
A strong showing would have the twin effect of embarrassing Ahmadinejad
and sending a message to the ruling clerics, who have the final word on
the candidates for the 2013 presidential election to replace lame duck
"It is unlikely the (Rahimi) dispute will have particular repercussions
in the short term," said Hamid Reza Shokouhi, a political analyst in
Tehran. "But its impact will be seen in the next parliamentary
It does, however, show Ahmadinejad's shrinking political coterie.
"Supporters of Ahmadinejad are ... a limited group now," said Shokouhi.
But still a very formidable one.
Ahmadinejad continues to enjoy support from the two most potent forces
in Iran: the Revolutionary Guard and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, who controls the theocracy and its almost limitless powers.
This has been enough to intimidate Ahmadinejad's opponents from going
too far. The lines, however, keep shifting in favor of bolder political
On Sunday, former Iranian foreign minister Mottaki was praised in a
statement by 260 parliament members — all but 30 — in a direct slap
against Ahmadinejad. Last month, dozens of lawmakers signed a petition
seeking to bring Ahmadinejad into the chamber for questioning over
complaints including fiscal mismanagement.
The effort apparently sputtered before getting enough signatures, but it
reinforced the sense that Ahmadinejad can be pressured openly without
facing the wrath of the supreme leader.
"The fact that Rahimi is being attacked so publicly by conservatives —
and even some hard-liners — suggests the political temperature is
heating up," said Shadi Hamid, a researcher on Gulf affairs at The
Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
A showdown over Rahimi could also feed into the claims that Ahmadinejad
is increasingly embattled and trying to surround himself with staunch
Rahimi was appointed as one of Iran's 12 vice presidents in 2005 and
rose to the top spot last year. He has taken part in sensitive political
meetings, such as visits by Chinese officials.
Last summer, he called the US dollar and euro "dirty" after Iran
threatened to stop selling oil in the currencies to protest economic
sanctions. He also called Australians "a bunch of cattlemen" and said
South Korea "needed to be slapped" after both nations backed sanctions.