President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the nation's intelligence chief remain in a cold war. A wave of reported detentions has included a prayer leader who angered clerics with a film about Judgment Day.
An influential Friday prayer leader lectured Ahmadinejad about the huge risks of defying Iran's supreme leader, and websites claim that the president has an ultimatum to either fall in line or step down.
All the upheaval was ostensibly triggered by last month's boomerang over the powerful intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi. Ahmadinejad wanted him gone, yet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered him to stay in a public slap to the president.
But to better understand the current clash between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, a visit back to their first major collision in 2009 is needed.
That battle _ as this one _ has a political lightening rod named Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as a central figure.
In July 2009, just weeks after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election, he picked his close confidant Mashaei as the most senior of his many vice presidents. Iran's hard-liners were so stunned that it even diverted their attention from the riots on Tehran's streets.
Mashaei is reviled by archconservatives for statements including his homage to Iran's pre-Islamic values and suggesting that Iran may despise Israel's government but can be friends with its people. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the pinnacle of Iran's ruling theocracy, quickly stepped in and Mashaei was gone within the week in a stinging embarrassment to Ahmadinejad.
But Ahmadinejad regrouped and gave the post of chief of staff to Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son.
Move ahead to the current showdown.
Here's Mashaei again.
Ahmadinejad apparently has been testing the ground for Mashaei to run as his successor in 2013. But any such plan needs control of the intelligence ministry, whose files can potentially sink any political ambitions with facts or innuendo.
Now Ahmadinejad is stuck with an intelligence minister he rejects and tied to political ally Mashaei who is apparently being pushed into political exile on the wishes of the supreme leader.
Hard-liners sharply oppose Mashaei and consider him the head of a "deviant current" that seeks to shape politics after Ahmadinejad's term expires in two years. Among the alarm bells for the ruling system is the belief that Mashaei seeks to undermine Islamic values and supports expanding powers of elected officials at the expense of the theocracy. Hard-liners also sense a risk that Mashaei could favor mending ties with Washington.
A powerful conservative cleric, Ahmad Khatami, scolded Ahmadinejad for sitting next to the "marginal" Mashaei at the last Cabinet meeting after the intelligence minister reportedly walked out on the president's arrival.
"The president, who came to office with the support of supreme leader loyalists ... was expected to obey him (Khamenei). Unfortunately, it was not done," Khatami said in comments posted on various websites Friday.
He also suggested that Ahmadinejad could be left with a toothless and stagnant presidency if he continues to challenge Khamenei, the supreme leader whose most loyal supporters believe is only answerable to God.
At Tehran University, another hard-line cleric, Kazem Sedighi, added another thinly veiled warning to Ahmadinejad.
"The supreme leader is above the constitution ... his powers are absolute," he told worshippers in a sermon broadcast around the nation on state radio _ prompting chants from the crowd of "death to opponents of the supreme leader." Last Sunday, Ahmadinejad signaled he had backed down by attending his first Cabinet meeting after an apparent 10-day boycott and acknowledging he was "ready to die" to defend Khamenei.
But still Ahmadinejad has not been seen recently with Moslehi. The intelligence chief didn't show up at last Sunday's Cabinet session and he left Wednesday when the president arrived to chair the meeting.
Independent news website fararu.ir said Ahmadinejad forced Moslehi to leave the Cabinet meeting, although a pro-government website said it was a matter of delay on the part of the president and early exit by Moslehi.
Morteza Agha Tehrani, a hardline lawmaker close to Ahmadinejad, is even quoted by news websites as saying that Khamenei has told the president he must either resign or recognize Moslehi as the intelligence chief. The government has not reacted to the report and websites have quoted Ahmadinejad as saying he is contemplating his options.
Ahmadinejad was conspicuously absent in all photos released by Khamenei's office from a prominent religious ceremony hosted by the top cleric this week. One of the photos shows Moslehi sitting next to Khamenei.
Hard-line authorities, meanwhile, have arrested up to 25 people loyal to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei in recent days and blocked half a dozen websites allied to them.
Among those arrested are cleric Abbas Amirifar, prayer leader of the presidential palace, and Parivash Sotuti, widow of former liberal-minded foreign minister Hossein Fatemi. Hossein Nowbakhti, a close Mashaei ally, is now on the run, according to Iranian news websites.
Amirifar caused outrage after he recently predicted in an interview that Mashaei will be Iran's next president. But his detention is over his alleged role in producing the controversial film "Reappearance Is Very Near" that depicts Khamenei and Ahmadinejad as two close companions of Mahdi, a revered 9th century saint known as the Hidden Imam. Shiite Muslims believe Mahdi will reappear before Judgment Day to end tyranny and promote justice in the world.
The film _ DVDs of it were distributed in millions throughout Iran _ has been condemned by senior clerics in Qom, the country's seat of Shiite scholarship, who say no one can claim when Mahdi will reappear.
In a video posted on several Iranian news websites this week, Mashaei calls himself a "soldier of the supreme leader" but vows to stand his ground.
"I won't back down, unless it's over my dead body," he said. "I'm not a man with an ailing heart. But, believe me, some people will suffer a stroke because of me. You'll see that later." ^___ Ali Akbar Dareini is the AP's senior correspondent in Tehran and has covered Iran for the AP for more than a decade.