Until very recently, the West regarded Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s man.
The president’s first term was largely about completing the hard-line backlash, approved by the supreme leader, against the reformist camp led by former President Mohammad Khatami. And Ahmadinejad did the job thoroughly.
But now Ahmadinejad begins his second term immediately after feuding with the supreme leader. At issue was Ayatollah Khamenei's backing of conservative demands that the president dismiss a top aide.
The reasons for the demands are less important than the result. Ahmadinejad dismissed the aide, who is his brother-in-law, reappointed him to another top position, and informed Khamenei in cold terms that he had complied with the supreme leader's request.
The highly public spat between the president and the supreme leader just before the inauguration gives new reasons to consider where Ahmadinejad is going.
Some of the most telling signs are the least obvious ones, partly because they are couched in religious symbolism that few outside Iran understand. But inside Iran, the symbols carry tremendous weight and much is read into them.
This week, just before Ahmadinejad's inauguration for a second term, his government financed an event not seen in the Islamic republic before.
Construction workers used water trucks to spray rose water over the entire surface of the mosque of the Mahdi in Qom. The Mahdi, the 12th descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is the spiritual leader of Iran's majority Shi'ite believers, who await his eventual return to bring order and harmony to the world.
The perfuming of the mosque, shown on television, is in line with the Iranian establishment's veneration of the Mahdi, who is believed to have gone into hiding as a child in the 10th century to escape enemies. But it is also the kind of symbol that has become a hallmark of Ahmadinejad's administration: setting the stage for the Hidden Mahdi's imminent -- not eventual -- return.Mahdi Highway
There have been many similar gestures.
The government has spent heavily on constructing a highway from Qom toward the Iran-Iraq border, even providing the completed sections with lighting for night driving.
The road is in the direction of Samarra, in Iraq, the location from which the Mahdi disappeared and where he is expected to reappear. It is there for the Mahdi to use to come immediately to the holy city of Qom and begin his reign on earth.
At the same time, Ahmadinejad, who leaves an empty seat for the Mahdi at his cabinet meetings, has at times appeared to claim his government is specially protected by the Mahdi. Upon his return from a speech at the United Nations in June, 2005, he said that others present saw a "light" envelop him as he spoke.
"A person [who attended the UN summit] told me that when I started to say 'in the name of God' a halo of light surrounded you and you were protected by a fence of light until the end of your speech," Ahmadinejad said.
"I felt it myself as well. I felt the atmosphere was changed and people did not blink for the 27 or 28 minutes of my address."
Ahmadinejad himself at times goes to Qom to very publicly ask for the Mahdi's blessings by casting a message down a well at his mosque. The gesture is common among Iran's believers, but with the president it also is meant to underline how much Ahmadinejad sees himself as merely the steward of the government until the Mahdi comes.
All of this could be seen as religious and nonpolitical except for one thing: the Islamic republic already has a steward in the Mahdi's absence. The steward is the supreme leader.
That raises the possibility that Ahmadinejad’s symbolic sidestepping of the supreme leader today could end in the political sidestepping of the supreme leader tomorrow. And, as Ahmadinejad begins his second term in an unprecedented riff with Khamenei, the possibility only seems to grow more likely.
Ahmadinejad himself has said he considers his goal to be handing over power to the "original leader" of the country's government. The allusion, again, is to the Mahdi's imminent return, an event which would make the constitution and the office of supreme leader superfluous.
But it is not just Ahmadinejad, whom reformists accuse of stealing the June election, who bears watching. Other powerful figures, too, are sidestepping Khamenei -- suggesting broader forces than just Ahmadinejad are in play.
One is the ultraconservative cleric who is widely considered to be Ahmadinejad's mentor, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. He believes an Islamic government gets its legitimacy only from God. That is despite the provision for elections in the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the fact the constitution is protected by the supreme leader.
Mesbah-Yazdi recently wrote on his website that “the legitimacy of the government has always been dependent on God’s determination and it does not depend on the people. It is a divine order and the leader is selected by Him.”
Such readiness to do away with the Islamic republic’s constitutional provisions for popular representation do not only worry Iran’s beleaguered reformists. It also worries some of the Islamic republic’s most powerful establishment figures.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has recently appeared to warn the supreme leader that the real stakes in the election crisis are the existing order of the Islamic republic itself.
Speaking about Khamenei’s endorsement of Ahmadinejad as president elect following the June vote, Rafsanjani told the supreme leader: "Your support for him is making a fire whose smoke will go first into your eyes."
The warning is doubly significant because Rafsanjani is neither a frontline reformist nor a personal friend of Khamenei. He is a moderate conservative intent on preserving Iran's current structure.
Reformist leaders go further. Former President Mohammad Khatami has warned the public against what he called "a group trying to take the republic out of the constitution." He did not name the group because, given Iran's postelection crisis, he does not need to.Conspiracy Theories
Iran, of course, is a country where conspiracy theories abound. And arguments that there are organized groups maneuvering to take power and pursue their own agenda are never difficult to find.
One of the most widespread conspiracy theories centers upon a hidden movement to which the names of various hard-liners like Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi are often linked. It is a movement barely known in the West but considered powerful in Iran: the Hojjatiyeh.
The Hojjatiyeh movement appeared in Iran in the 1950s as a purist Shi'ite backlash against perceived gains by the Baha'i and the Sunni communities, both of which it regards as blasphemous.
Originally, this led to an accommodation with the shah under which -- in exchange for crackdowns on the two groups -- the Hojjatiyeh supported the monarch against revolutionary clerics like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and against the communists. But the arrangement broke down as the Hojjatiyeh saw the crackdowns as ineffective and switched sides to Khomeini.
The fit between Khomeini and the Hojjatiyeh was never a comfortable one, partly because the movement believes that only with the arrival of the Mahdi can a genuine Islamic government be established. That implied that Khomeini’s concept of a supreme leader guiding a constitutional government was insufficient.
This and other disagreements finally led to the movement being banned in 1983. But despite going underground, the movement regained strength, evolved, and today is widely believed to be a highly secretive network with members in many state institutions.
Nicola Pedde, director of Globe Research, a think tank specializing in Middle Eastern issues in cooperation with the University of Rome, Italy, is one of the few Western researchers who has studied the group.
He says there are a lot of rumors and legends in Iran, according to which "a lot of people are supposed to be part of the Hojjatiyeh or some of those who are part of the upper level of the clerical system are suspected of being part of this group."
"Of course the most famous [suspect] is Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi but nobody can really confirm this information,” he says.
Conspiracy theories are just that: theories. But they often gain attention when they contain a grain of truth or neatly express people's fears.
Is there an ultra-conservative, secretive group which might try to usurp power to realize its own vision of a Shi'ite state that is Islamist without being a republic and which seeks to hasten the Mahdi's return?
It may be a stretch too far to make that argument today. But as Iran begins another four years under the enigmatic Ahmadinejad, it might be something to keep in mind for the future.
Individual Shi'a believe that the Mahdi's return can be hastened by one of two ways. He will reappear when the faithful build a just society to entice him back or when the world is consumed in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil and believers need his protection.
Which way the president's camp favors, no one knows for sure.
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