In an unprecedented move, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has directly blasted President Mahmud Ahmadinejad over controversial comments he made recently, including saying that parliament is not on top of the country's affairs.
Ahmadinejad was also criticized for promoting an "Iranian school of thought" instead of an Islamic one.
Ahmadinejad has in recent weeks come under fire by his hard-line allies and conservatives over his new nationalistic rhetoric. So far, the IRGC, whose power and influence has grown since Ahmadinejad came to power, had not publicly criticized the Iranian president.
The unusual attack by the IRGC, coming in one of its main publications, is seen by analysts as a warning issued to Ahmadinejad from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the intention of trying to tame the Iranian president.
The IRGC monthly publication "Payam-e Enghelab" (Message of the Revolution), which is managed by Khamenei's representatives, described Ahmadinejad's statement that the government is not on top of the country's affairs as an offense to the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"The essence of bringing up this issue is a clear attack to Imam Khomeini, the great leader of the Islamic Revolution, who had said 'the parliament is on top of the affairs,'" it said. "Unfortunately, this was brought up by politicians and the president himself."
Ahmadinejad had said in a September interview with the "Iran" daily that Khomeini's comments reflected the situation at the time but that things have changed. He said at that time the prime minister was in charge of running the country, was elected through parliament, and parliament was the highest power.
"But now the executive branch has to run the country and other branches have to support it," said Ahmadinejad, who has increasingly clashed with the conservative-dominated parliament.
His comments drew sharp criticism by lawmakers who have called on him to fulfill his duties instead of undermining the parliament.
The IRGC publication accused Ahmadinejad of incorrectly interpreting and altering Khomeini's words to his own benefit which, it said, presents a negative message to Iranian society.
The publication also said that for some time, spending time on "unnecessary and marginal" issues that are damaging to the people has become the main issue for some of the country's officials. Instead, the publication says, the focus should be on "real" issues such as employment and inflation.
Ali Alfoneh, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on the IRGC, believes the criticism is an attempt by Khamenei to re-create a balance between political forces within the Iranian establishment.
"Supreme Leader Khamenei has systematically supported the parliament in its attempt at criticizing Ahmadinejad," Alfoneh says. "Khamenei has urged the judiciary to criticize Ahmadinejad and now we see the Revolutionary Guards criticizing Ahmadinejad.”
Alfoneh told RFE/RL that the warning could be one of the ways in which Khamenei is trying to provide a "counterbalance” to Ahmadinejad in “the absence of the reformist camp."
He says Ahmadinejad has tried to carve an empire for himself and has tried to create a power base completely independent of the leader.
Turning Into 'Real Power'
In Germany, researcher Reza Khaligh, who has written extensively about the IRGC, says Khamenei is concerned about Ahmadinejad's growing power.
"Ahmadinejad has the country's government and budget under control, through which he has appealed to the lower segments of the society. Recently, by promoting an Iranian Islam and an Iranian school of thought, he's been trying to get the backing of the middle class," says Khaligh.
He added that it appears Ahmadinejad is turning into “a real power” within the structure, a power opposing the supreme leader. “That is not acceptable to Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards," Khaligh says.
Khaligh says Khamenei has been publicly supporting Ahmadinejad, but behind the scenes he's been trying to counter the "unruly" president and weaken his position.
The criticism by the Revolutionary Guards, Khaligh believes, could make Ahmadinejad retreat in the short run. In the long run, he believes the combatant president will push for his own agenda.
Alfoneh says Ahmadinejad's reaction to the apparent warning will depend on his calculation of the balance of power within the forces of the regime.
"If he believes that Khamenei cannot rely on other political forces other than himself, he would ignore this warning," Alfoneh says. "But if he believes that Khamenei could in reality replace him with other political forces, such as the Larijani brothers [Sadegh and Ari], then he will show greater flexibility."
For now, Alfoneh notes that the criticism was rather "discreet," as it was published in the monthly publication of the IRGC, which requires a subscription and has far few readers that the weekly "Sobh-e Sadegh," which is also available online.
Had the website Tabnak -- which is close to Ahmadinejad rival Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the IRGC and a defeated presidential candidate -- not reposted the piece by "Payam-e Enghelab," the criticism might have gone largely unnoticed.