Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Surprisingly Turns On Iranian Religious Right

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is waging a public battle against his political opponents and straying from the hardline religious right. With just three months left in his term, he is deliberately setting the stage for a fight over his legacy and succession. While Ahmadinejad is usually cast as an enemy of the U.S., and for good reason, in this case his coalition is the lesser of two evils. Ahmadinejad wants talks with the U.S., while other Iranian leaders do not.

Ahmadinejad may be trying to improve his standing among the people because prosecutors have opened several cases against officials in his inner circle. The prosecutors accuse them of financial corruption, mismanagement, and straying from Islam.

As a counter-punch, in February, Ahmadinejad showed a tape to the Iranian Parliament that purported to show Fazel Larijani propose a corrupt deal to purchase a state-owned company under favorable terms. Fazel is one of five Larijani brothers who are extremely powerful in Iran. His brother Ali is the head of the parliament  and his brother Sadegh is the head of the judiciary. Another brother, Mohammed Javad, is also an official in the judiciary. Fazel affirms that he is in the tape, but says the audio is a voiceover.

More generally, Ahmadinejad says that "Some of the relationships, which had been formed as a result of groupings and power-mongering pursuits in the country, have come to an end, and with the help of God will be purged from the revolution and the holy Islamic republic."

Ahmadinejad is a political rival to Ali Fazel, who has strong ties with Muslim clerics. The religious establishment has been upset by Ahmadinejad's actions in recent months. At Hugo Chavez's funeral, Ahmadinejad hugged Chavez's widow, which violates religious sanctions against physical contact between men and women who are unrelated or unmarried. He has also taken to referring to Iran as a nation rather than ummah, meaning community of believers, which is the term promoted by the clerics.

In recent months, Ahmadinejad has placed less emphasis on inserting Islam into the daily lives of Iranians. He has even used the phrase "long live spring" in speeches, a thinly veiled reference to the Arab Spring.

Ahmadinejad is trying to ensure that his pick for the next president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, wins the election. Mashaei is father-in-law to Ahmadinejad's son, and has been a spiritual mentor to the president. The traditionalists hoping to gain more power are opposed to his candidacy. Mashaei believes the nation of Iran is more important than Islam, which angers the hard-line religious faction.

Leading religious figures have called Mashaei a Freemason, a foreign spy, and have claimed he wants to oust the clerics that have ruled Iran since the Islamic Revolution. They call him a heretic for promoting a direct relationship with God over one mediated through clerics. There are rumblings of unrest around the election, this time coming from the establishment, rather than the youths who rose up in 2009.

What happens next will largely be determined by the religious establishment. The Guardian Council must vet candidates for public office, but even if they deny Mashaei's right to run for office, Ayatollah Khamenei can issue a decree allowing him to run. Khamenei has remained deliberately removed from the political squabbling, keeping his allegiances murky.

Still, Ahmadinejad is only getting closer to the election, and he may surprise the people with ever more forceful and open denunciations of the political and religious establishment. It's the rare case where a surprise from Ahmadinejad is a win for the U.S.

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