Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is challenging attempts to sideline him during the waning months of his presidency as the country braces for another election.
Embedded in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric of Iran's soaring greatness and the collapse of the West – typical themes on the Islamic Republic's 34th birthday party – was a renewed political challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and lesser pillars of the regime, as Iran prepares for presidential elections in June.
Four months before the vote, the highest echelons of Iran's Islamic regime are embroiled in political infighting and a power struggle, have taken steps to quell potential dissent, and fear a repeat of the post-election violence that engulfed Iran in 2009 after the last disputed presidential vote.
Analysts say the recent arrest and harassment of journalists and questioning this week of a son and daughters of key opposition leaders, who remain under house arrest, are just some of the signs of deep insecurity and uncertainty now afflicting the regime.
"Everybody expected some kind of loosening and opening up [before the election], but exactly the opposite is happening," says an analyst in Tehran who could not be named for fear of retribution. "It comes from a panicky feeling that things are breaking apart."
"The Islamic Republic has had a lot of elections, every year ... and all of a sudden this became so sensitive," says the analyst. "What is so different about it this time? It is not so clear, [except] that infighting has grown bigger and bigger."
Ahmadinejad, who has served two full terms, cannot run for office again. But his past challenges to Ayatollah Khamenei's authority have prompted key conservative power centers in Iran to gang up against him, painting his inner circle as a dangerous "deviant current."
Khamenei – who intervened to shore up Ahmadinejad's fraud-tainted 2009 reelection by calling his victory a "divine assessment" – has made clear that he wants calm before the vote. He praised the large turnout at weekend anniversary rallies, saying "the people caused the enemy to become disappointed and hopeless through their presence."
The result, Iran's top political authority said, was that the West "reach[ed] the conclusion that this nation cannot be confronted."
But in the run-up to the June election, the bigger risk appears to come from inside. And Ahmadinejad's warnings from the flower-encircled podium seemed designed to sow more political chaos and demonstrate that he remains an unpredictable player. He described the people's "right to pick their rulers" and declared that "no one should think they can decide" in their stead.
"It was heard, some people have said they want to engineer the election," said Ahmadinejad, referring to recent words of an official representative of Khamenei that it was a "duty" of Iran's Revolutionary Guard to "engineer" elections.
"I would say proudly that the great nation of Iran know[s] what to do, they know which path to take, and they don't need any such groups or individuals," Ahmadinejad said, according to a simultaneous translation on state-run PressTV.
"You can notify people about your plans, but destroying other's reputation to prove yourself – this is not the right thing to do," said Ahmadinejad. "The late Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini, father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution] said that the nation has become divine, and that no one can impose his opinions on the people."
The Revolutionary Guard quickly backtracked on the "engineer" quote, saying its job is only to ensure a large turnout, not to rig the result. But guardsmen who defected after the 2009 election and crackdown said that they had been ordered to do exactly that back then – ironically to ensure and then secure the declared victory for Ahmadinejad.
In the speech, Ahmadinejad's last and most high-profile platform before the end of his term, he warned "some individuals" that they should "not act or speak in a way" that that will play into the hands of the treacherous enemies of the Iranian nation."
Yet in the eyes of many of Iran's political elite, it is the president who has done just that – for years. Despite Khamenei's calls for unity months ago, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly butted heads with, among others, the Larijani family, one of the most powerful in Iran.
His fight with them erupted again in parliament last week when he played a video recording that appeared to show one Larijani brother, Fazel, peddling influence. Brother Ali Larijani is speaker of Parliament, while Sadegh Larijani is head of the judiciary.
The dispute took on a more overt form on Feb. 10, when, as Ahmadinejad was speaking to crowds in Tehran, his raucous supporters brought to an end a speech by Ali Larijani in the religious center of Qom by throwing clay prayer disks and shoes.
"Ahmadinejad was declaring political war" in his speech, wrote analyst Scott Lucas on his website EAWorldView.
"Ahmadinejad, the man whose reelection was disputed in 2009 by millions amid claims of electoral manipulation and intimidation, had just acknowledged that Iran's elections – the same elections that the Supreme Leader had hailed last month as the free-est in the world – can be rigged," said Mr. Lucas, a professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
The events of the revolutionary anniversary are just one facet of many pre-election adjustments.
Arrests in recent weeks of more than a dozen journalists accused of links to Western media organizations signals to other journalists to beware of any outside contact, says the Tehran analyst. The arrests are a "pre-emptive" step by the regime which shows its concerns about outside "conspiracy," and also how carefully it is trying to manage the election process this time.
"Obviously, Ahmadinejad is doing his own thing and disregarding all the advice from higher people to slow down, reach some harmony," says the Tehran analyst. "Rumors have been around that Ahmadinejad will be impeached, that he won't finish his term. I think it's too costly [for the regime] to do that."
The infighting comes as Green Movement activists note on Feb. 15 the two-year anniversary of the house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two former regime heavyweights who challenged their "loss" to Ahmadinejad in 2009.
There were weeks of violent protests in the aftermath of the vote. On one day alone, as many as three million Iranians turned out in the streets of Tehran. Many held placards that read "Where is my vote?"
Months of episodic unrest followed. Though brutally suppressed by the regime, barely a day has passed in the years since that officials have not spoken about "the sedition" – and that it will never be allowed to happen again.
Perhaps inadvertently keeping a spotlight on that event, authorities detained two of Mr. Mousavi's daughters on Feb. 11, and one of Mr. Karroubi's sons, and ransacked their Tehran residences.
"Look at how the system is sensitive about the simplest things," another Karroubi son, Mohammad, told Al-Monitor's Barbara Slavin from London.
He said the interrogations were prompted by an open letter requesting access to their parents, and that in the last four months his father "has not seen the sun or smelled fresh air" except for three hospital visits, escorted by security agents.
"They are so afraid that when [Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi] are back into the society, if they started to talk and criticize the system, the government doesn't have enough confidence to tolerate that," said Mohammad Karroubi.
Therefore the dilemma can be solved only one way, Karroubi's son suggests: "The system has decided to engineer the election and fix the result."