Iran's supreme leader makes unusual political move

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) delivers a speech as he stands under portraits of late founder of Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (L) and supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali khamenei (R) during a rally in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 10, 2013.
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Iran's supreme leader is supposed to be many things in the eyes of his followers: Spiritual mentor, protector of the Islamic Revolution, a moral compass above the regular fray.

Political referee is not among them.

Yet that is the unfamiliar role Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has adopted as the political mudslinging gets heavier ahead of elections in June to pick a successor for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Bad, wrong, inappropriate," scolded Khamenei on Saturday in his most stinging rebuke of Ahmadinejad for his mounting attacks on rivals - including an ambush earlier this month in parliament when he played a barely audible videotape that purported to show corruption inside the family of the chamber's speaker.

Khamenei then went on to chide the parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, for publicly humiliating Ahmadinejad in response to the tape.

"When there is a common enemy and conspiracies are hatched from all sides, is there any way other than strengthening brotherhood and resisting the enemy?" Khamenei said in reference to widening Western sanctions and pressures over Iran's nuclear program.

Hardball politics are nothing new in Iran, whose elected parliament and government can make even Washington's bickering seem genteel. It also is unlikely to threaten the real power in Iran: The ruling clerics and their guardians led by the Revolutionary Guard.

But the deepening nastiness inside Iran speaks volumes about the importance of the presidential election on June 14 and how it could reset Tehran's political order.

Khamenei seeks to tamp down the rising political spats that could signal weakness to the West in nuclear negotiations set to resume next week. He also wants to close off any openings for public complaints over the economic pain from the expanding sanctions.

At the same time, however, Khamenei risks blows to his image if his unprecedented personal intervention fails to calm the growing tremors whose epicenter is Ahmadinejad.

Parliament on Sunday showed obedience. More than 260 lawmakers - nearly the entire 290-seat chamber - expressed loyalty to Khamenei. Ahmadinejad made no immediate comment.

"The presidential election has raised the stakes in the ongoing blame game," said Abolghasem Bayyenat, a former Iranian trade official who runs the website

Khamenei "certainly does not want the political wrangling ... to get out of control," he said.

But Ahmadinejad shows no signs of heading into a quiet retirement after his second and final term. This raises the possibility he could become something Iran has rarely seen: a political wild card able to muster allies and grass roots backers to complicate life for rivals such as Larijani.

And one of those rivals could very well be sitting in Ahmadinejad's old office in Tehran. Khamenei has pushed back hard against Ahmadinejad's attempts to challenge his authority in the past two years. As payback, the ruling clerics are likely to block any key Ahmadinejad backer from the presidential ballot and bring in someone who has sided with Khamenei as his relationship with Ahmadinejad drifted from cozy to cool to outright hostility.

In the meantime, Ahmadinejad heads into his final months eager to land some punches on his opponents.

"We are witnessing a new precariousness in Iran's internal politics," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

There's no clearer evidence than Khamenei, whose hard-core followers believe is answerable only to God. Yet even he can't seem to calm Iran's political tempest with rare - and increasingly sharp - orders from on high.

It suggests a diminishing regard for Khamenei and the ruling clerics to fully set the political tone inside Iran - which could be the ultimate political legacy of Ahmadinejad from his defiance while in office and his possible gadfly role after leaving later this year.