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Ahmadinejed, intelligence chief battle

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's political tremors are leaving debris in all directions.

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 lightning 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 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, had Mashaei gone within the week.

But Ahmadinejad regrouped and gave the post of chief of staff to Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son.

Ahmadinejad has apparently 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.

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 sense a risk that Mashaei could favor mending ties with Washington.A powerful conservative cleric, Ahmad Khatami, scolded Ahmadinejad for sitting next to Mashaei at the last Cabinet meeting after the intelligence minister reportedly walked out on the president's arrival.

Hard-line authorities have arrested up to 25 people loyal to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei in recent days and blocked half a dozen websites allied to them.

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