Middle East

SIEGEL: As we just heard, Prime Minister Netanyahu had some tough words today for Iran's leadership and he's not the only one. In fact, Iran's president, Mahmoud Admandinejad, is under attack, not only from the outside but from the inside, too - from Iran's conservative press, from its parliament, and most serious of all, from many of the conservative clergy who once supported him.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, Admandinejad has been accused of adopting a deviant position and of trying to circumvent Iran's clerics on religious matters.

MIKE SHUSTER: It's been a bad few weeks for President Admandinejad. He tried to fire his intelligence chief but was blocked from doing it. He tried to consolidate several government ministries, but the Parliament says he can't. It's illegal. Officials close to his inner circle have been arrested. There's a rumor his chief of staff will be arrested.

The conservative press now refers to Admandinejad and his advisors as the deviant team. The number of supporters he has within the governing system in Iran is dwindling, says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Mr. ALIREZA NADER (RAND Corporation): There's tension between him and the supreme leader. He doesn't get along with Parliament. There's a lot of tension between him and the Guardian Council. And the head of the Guardian Council was a strong Ahmadinejad supporter. So he is slowly being squeezed by all the most important players in Iranian politics.

SHUSTER: Why all this hostility? In essence, because Ahmadinejad has challenged Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad and those around him have sought to portray the president as preeminent in matters of both religion and policy. He's trying to create new constituencies, says Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council.

Mr. TRITA PARSI (National Iranian American Council): He's been trying to play the Persian nationalist card, for instance, which is very, very popular in Iran, and particularly among those who despise the Islamic Republic. Whether he will be successful in that, of course, is a different matter. But it shows that he is himself aware that he needs to have a stronger platform and constituency in order to be able to continue this effort of his.

SHUSTER: And the goal? It appears to be to extend Ahmadinejad's political power beyond 2013, when his second and final term as president expires. To accomplish this, he had taken some very risky steps. He has set in motion new economic policies to eliminate subsidies that for years have provided cheap gasoline, electricity, bread and rice and other basic staples.

At the same time, he has initiated cash payments to many in Iran to ease the economic pain, notes Hossein Askari, an expert on Iran's economy at George Washington University.

Mr. HOSSEIN ASKARI (George Washington University): Nobody else had the courage to do this. He jumped on it because I think he saw this as a way to become even more of a populist. He wanted to target these cash payments to the poor.

SHUSTER: All this is designed with a clear political purpose in mind, to put forward his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as the presidential candidate to succeed him, says Alireza Nader.

Mr. NADER: This is not a man who is going to give up power easily, and since he can't run for another term, he wants to use Mashaei as basically his proxy.

SHUSTER: Hossein Askari agrees.

Mr. ASKARI: He is trying to make sure that he is the power behind the throne when the two years are up.

SHUSTER: But it's a dangerous gambit, and it's brought him into direct conflict with Ayatollah Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in the Islamic Republic. So far, in all the head-to-head clashes that have taken place recently, Khamenei has come out the winner. Ahmadinejad effectively conceded that in a recent television interview, where he appeared contrite.

President MAHMOUD ADMANDINEJAD (Iran): (Foreign language spoken).

SHUSTER: It is my duty to defend both the dear leader and his high status, Admandinejad told a national television audience. Our relation with him is both ideological and of personal interest.

But that appearance has done nothing to calm the storm of criticism, notes Trita Parsi.

Mr. PARSI: If you're an Islamic Republic and you have people who may run for president say that Iran is more important than Islam, then that is a fundamental challenge to the very principle the Islamic Republic is resting on.

SHUSTER: The battle for control of Iran's government shows no sign of abating. And as it intensifies, it only seems to weaken Iran further, says Trita Parsi.

Mr. PARSI: There are no good guys in this fight, but there can be a good outcome if this further weakens them and enables the political spectrum in Iran to expand rather than shrink, which is exactly what it's been doing in the last 10 years.

SHUSTER: The latest slap in the face for Ahmadinejad, he appointed himself interim head of the oil ministry, with its multi-billion dollar budget. The rotating chair of the oil cartel OPEC is in Iran's hands right now, and he was expected to lead its meeting next month. Not going to happen, declared the clergy-dominated Guardian Council a couple of days ago, that's illegal.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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