May 1, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 685

Following Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift, Khamenei Bolsters His Status as Iran's Supreme Leader

May 1, 2011 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 685


In the past two weeks, the Iranian media and the regime institutions have been preoccupied with the head-on collision between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over the firing of Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi.

On April 17, 2011, Ahmadinejad fired Moslehi, who is close to Khamenei[1]; a few days later, on April 23, he was compelled to reinstate him, on orders from Khamenei.[2] At that point Ahmadinejad remained secluded in his home for an entire week, suspending his regular activities, while the various regime apparatuses were recruited by Khamenei to clarify to Ahmadinejad that disobeying the Supreme Leader was tantamount to disobeying the Shi'ite imams. Such a move, they said, could cost Ahmadinejad his position, as had happened in the past to other key officials in the history of the Islamic revolutionary regime who had confronted the revolution's leader, "Imam" Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

It now appears that Ahmadinejad is trying to get back into Khamenei's good graces, while proclaiming publicly that he has always been loyal to the principle of the "rule of the jurisprudent."

In the Iranian media, the rift between the two leaders has been attributed most commonly to personal motives – namely, Ahmadinejad's objections to Khamenei's interference in the political nominations that Ahmadinejad considers to be his prerogative. However, this explanation seems inadequate, considering that the two have for years been bound in a tight political alliance, with Khamenei throwing his full support behind Ahmadinejad during the Green Movement's struggle against him following his 2009 reelection, and also in the struggle against Hashemi Rafsanjani. It thus seems unlikely that they would fall out so completely over Ahmadinejad's dismissal of a minister, no matter how prominent.

Therefore, another explanation should be considered – namely, a profound ideological clash between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which would remain even if this dispute is resolved. Such an ideological clash might be, for example, over how Iran should respond to the actions of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states in the Bahrain crisis – in which Ahmadinejad might have supported a militant approach towards Saudi Arabia while Khamenei had been passive.

In any case, it seems that this crisis in the Iranian leadership – whether due to personal reasons or ideological disagreement – is of critical importance in Iran's way forward, and in its stance in the region, in the coming months. At present, it looks as though the rift has strengthened Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and consolidated his power and authority in the eyes of the Iranian public, against Ahmadinejad and his attempts to challenge him.

This paper will review the development and ramifications of this leadership crisis.

The Khamenei-Ahmadinejad Power Struggle

On April 21, 2011, the Iranian daily Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei, confirmed that he had chosen to make public his directive to Ahmadinejad to reinstate Moslehi two days after his personal and confidential request to Ahmadinejad to do so was not honored.[3] This also followed Ahmadinejad's refusal to invite Moslehi to the weekly government meeting.[4] It should be noted that Rahim Mashaei, the director of Ahmadinejad's office and related to him by marriage, was described in the media as the one responsible for Moslehi's dismissal, not Ahmadinejad, and was also depicted as regularly disregarding Khamenei's directives. Mashaei is already shunned in the Iranian political arena for past statements expressing sympathy for the Israeli people. Blaming him for the Moslehi crisis was meant to conceal the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei from the eyes of the public.

In an April 23 television interview, Khamenei took the unusual step of acknowledging that he would continue to intervene in the affairs of the Ahmadinejad government whenever he believed the regime to be in danger, and urged the Iranian leadership to remain united, lest its disunity serve Iran's enemies. He said: "In principle, I do not intend to intervene in the affairs of the government... unless I feel that the [regime's] interest is being disregarded, as has happened recently... As long as I live, I will not allow even the slightest deviation in the Iranian people's progress towards [implementing] its ideals."[5]

For one week, Ahmadinejad suspended his regular activities, apparently in protest over Khamenei's interference, and government meetings were chaired by Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi.[6] Ahmadinejad's associates hastened to explain that his absence was not because he was "sulking" but due to a severe case of the flu.[7] During the week, Ahmadinejad expressed his intention to address the nation on television the following week, and a source in his office said that he had met with Khamenei despite his illness, following Khamenei's April 23 speech, and had reiterated his loyalty to him.[8]

However, journalist Amir-Hossein Sabeti, an Ahmadinejad supporter who writes a column for the Raja News website, noted on April 25 that the president had told Khamenei that he would resume his duties on three conditions: Mashaei's appointment as Ahmadinejad's first vice president, Saeed Jalili's dismissal from his position as secretary of the Majlis Supreme National Security Council, and Moslehi's dismissal from the Intelligence Ministry., which posted the report, speculated that these conditions were meant to improve Ahmadinejad's standing vis-à-vis Khamenei.[9]

Regime Apparatuses to Ahmadinejad: Obey Khamenei

After Supreme Leader Khamenei publicly announced that he was determined to confront even President Ahmadinejad, whom he had consistently supported in the face of all the rival factions and figures since he was elected in 2005, all regime apparatuses – media, senior IRGC and Majlis figures, and senior clerics, all Ahmadinejad supporters – urged him to obey Khamenei, some doing so implicitly and some directly and bluntly. They warned him that if he did not, he would be impeached, and said that he must submit and pledge his loyalty to the existing order – i.e. to the dominance of the Supreme Leader Khamenei – and not risk creating a bifurcated regime that could result only in fitna (internal war). They stressed that disobeying Khamenei meant disobeying the Shi'ite imams and God himself, and was an act of heresy.

Senior Clerics To Ahmadinejad: Disobedience Is Heresy

Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Alam Al-Hoda, known to be a supporter of Ahmadinejad, also warned him, though less directly, saying: "Without obedience to the rule of the jurisprudent, the rule of the regime officials [becomes] illegitimate, even if every single citizen voted for them... The legitimacy of the regime of the Islamic Republic rests upon the [principle of] the rule of the jurisprudent, and any other [kind of] regime is heretical."[10]

The regime also used its official platform, the main Friday sermon in Tehran, to warn Ahmadinejad. The preacher, Assembly of Experts member Ahmad Khatami, called on the president to obey Khamenei, saying that if he did not he could lose his power base within the regime: "The people's support for the [regime] officials is not automatic but is contingent upon their obedience to the leader [Khamenei]... Doubtless, obedience to the ruler of the jurisprudent is a religious and legal duty incumbent upon all [regime] officials." He stressed that rule of the jurisprudent was the source of the regime's legitimacy and the exclusive source of the regime's success, and further clarified: "Regime [officials] are expected to avoid any action that implies that the regime is bifurcated."[11]

In an interview with the reformist website Rooz, Jafar Shajouni, a senior member of the conservative Jame-ye Rohaniyat-e Mobarez organization, said that if Ahmadinejad deviated from Khamenei's directives, he would suffer the same fate as president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, the heir-designate of the leader of the revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; both were deposed and removed from the political arena for clashing with Khomeini and disregarding his directives.[12]

Even Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi, considered to be Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, called on him to accept Khamenei's authority. In a speech at an IRGC conference, he said, "Opposing the rule of the jurisprudent is tantamount to opposing the imams, and traditionally it is heresy."[13]

Senior IRGC Officials to Ahmadinejad: We Will Identify the Group Operating Within Iran and Act Against It

At the IRGC conference, IRGC commander Mohammad Jafari warned, "Using its revolutionary understanding and the required cleverness, the IRGC will identify the deviant and hypocritical group operating within Iran. It will act with revolutionary patience when necessary – but when action is required, it will take revolutionary action." He added that the IRGC is opposed to the "Iranian school" [i.e. the Persian-Iranian school of thought, which is led by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei], and added: "There are people who, using their deviant methods, want to take from us what has been achieved with the blood of the martyrs – and this view is very dangerous."[14]

Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative in the IRGC, told the Fars news agency that the authority of the ruling jurisprudent was identical to that of the Shi'ite imams, and that the obligation to obey him was also identical – just as violating the directives of the ruling jurisprudent was tantamount to violating the directives of God and of the Hidden Imam. Thus, he said, when Khomeini's heir-designate Ayatollah Montazeri disobeyed Khomeini's instructions, and cut himself off from Mahdi Hashemi, he violated the will of God.[15]

An article in the IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadeq criticized Ahmadinejad for trying to fire Moslehi in haste and without Khamenei's knowledge, at a time when it is essential to strengthen the regime's intelligence and security institutions due to the instability in the region. The article also criticized Ahmadinejad's impulsivity, saying that he gave the personal interests of his office director Mashaei priority over the interests of the state.[16]

Fars, which is close to the IRGC, published a collection of statements by Ahmadinejad in recent years praising obedience to Khamenei, and reminded readers that Ahmadinejad had been voted in "by the people based on his statements about the rule of the jurisprudent."[17]

Majlis Measures Against Ahmadinejad

In a speech to regime officials, Majlis speaker Ali Larijani stressed "the exclusive role of the Imam [Khomeini] and Supreme Leader [Khamenei] in leading the regime of the Islamic Republic towards the goals of the revolution," and underlined the link between the nation and Khamenei as an historical breakthrough in the Islamic Revolution. He noted that even during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), then-president Bani Sadr had tried to create tension within Iranian society and to distract it from the issue of Iraq and the war, but that ultimately Khomeini had relieved him of the authority to lead the army and had removed him. Larijani said, "The role of the leader [Khamenei] in preserving the regime is indisputable," adding that even during the Khatami government, several elements had attempted to weaken the rule of the jurisprudent, but that Khamenei had stood the test and prevailed.[18]

At the same time, a dozen Majlis members signed a petition calling for Ahmadinejad to be summoned to the Majlis for questioning over the matter of his obedience to Khamenei. Majlis member Gholam-Reza Mesbahi-Moqaddam said that the Majlis could not remain indifferent in light of the prevailing uncertainty in the matter of ignoring Khamenei's orders – which, he said, means ignoring the orders of the Ahl Al-Bayit (the Imam Ali and his descendants from his marriage to Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad). He also hinted that the Majlis should do its duty, that is, begin proceedings to impeach Ahmadinejad.[19]

Mesbahi-Moqaddam said, "We don't want life, unless it is to preserve Islam. The foundation of Islam and of the Islamic regime is the rule of the jurisprudent, and we are willing to give our lives for this to be achieved." In response, Majlis speaker Larijani said that all the regime's institutions draw the legitimacy for their activity from the rule of the jurisprudent, and added that the Majlis is monitoring developments and will act as needed at the appropriate time.[20]

Ahmadinejad's Response: I'm Loyal to the Rule of the Jurisprudent – Which Is the Path of the Hidden Imam

Apparently, after a week of direct confrontation with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad capitulated and began to broadcast messages of obedience to the orders of the Supreme Leader, while depicting Khamenei's relationship with him as "like those of father and son." [21]

Ahmadinejad media advisor Ali-Akbar Javanfekr, director of the official Iranian news agency IRNA, wrote on his blog that although Ahmadinejad was heartbroken over accusations that he had acted against the revolution and against Khamenei, he was not despairing, and would continue on his path. He added that Ahmadinejad was desolate and deeply concerned about the possibility that "the wolves from within and from without" would lead to the loss of the regime's "tremendous accomplishments" that had resulted from the support of the "Lord of Time" [a term that might refer to Khamenei or to the Imam Ali] and from the backing of the people. He also noted that Ahmadinejad was worried about the possibility that the regime's progress would be halted due to negative factors that had regrouped and would try to force him, God forbid, to withdraw from this path – but that he was confident that Ahmadinejad would overcome it in the end. [22]

With his reemergence, at the May 1 government meeting, Ahmadinejad said that the rule of the jurisprudent was the most important foundation of the Islamic revolutionary regime, and that it "is the path of the Hidden Imam." Referring to Khamenei's statements that the enemies of the regime were exploiting his intervention in the Moslehi affair to point up an ostensible Khamenei-Ahmadinejad rift, the president added that he would never allow the enemies to take advantage of "several internal issues in Iran." Ahmadinejad thanked the Leader for the support, guidance, direction and help that he had given the government since he became president, and added that the rule of the jurisprudent would always be the guiding principle in any disagreement that might arise.

Ahmadinejad added that the nation, the leader, and the state all needed a strong president who could defend the country, stand fast, and advance the affairs of state. He said that any leader and director of society must have strong arms, and that because the enemies of the regime were trying to portray the regime as ineffective, the greatest service to the regime is to prove its effectiveness – which the government (led by him) sees as its obligation. He added that despite his absence from the government meetings the previous week, for reasons that he would continue to keep to himself, all six years of his presidency had been conducted in the framework of the rule of the jurisprudent, and that the current government (headed by him) is the only one ever in Iran in which all members obey this principle.

Ahmadinejad concluded by saying: "To the end of my life, I will be loyal to the rule of the jurisprudent and I will act against the arrogance and against the Zionist regime – and I hope that God will allow us to see the elimination of this regime."[23]

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project at MEMRI; Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Some in the media speculated that Moslehi had been fired because Ahmadinejad was displeased with his intelligence reports; others speculated that the dismissal was a response to Moslehi's firing of an associate of Ahmadinejad. An article in the weekly of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Sobh-e Sadeq, claimed that prior to Moslehi's dismissal, a senior official in the Intelligence Ministry had distributed to a limited circle a document warning that a group connected to the "hypocrites" (i.e. the Mojahedeen-e Khalq organization) and to the ideology of the Hojatia (a clandestine organization of which some allege that Ahmadinejad is a member) had infiltrated the regime with the intention of taking it over. Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), April 25, 2011.

[2] On April 17, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accepted the resignation of Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi, and appointed him presidential advisor. A short time later, however, the Asr-e Iran website reported that Moslehi had been reinstated, on orders from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, Ahmadinejad-affiliated outlets claimed that Moslehi had quit of his own accord, and that there is no dispute on the issue between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. On April 19, 2011 Majlis members sent a letter to the president stating that as far as they were concerned, Moslehi remains intelligence minister. The Alef and Tabnak websites claimed that Ahmadinejad ignored Khamenei's instructions and acted on his own.

On the other hand, supporters of Ahmadinejad, including the official news agency IRNA and Ahmadinejad's media advisor Ali-Akbar Javanfekr, stated that Khamenei is not opposed to the resignation and that Ahmadinejad's rivals are trying to claim that there is a dispute between the leader and the president.

Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is close to Khamenei, explained that Moslehi was fired by Ahmadinejad and reinstated on Khamenei's orders, and that the move to fire him was led by Rahim Mashaei, an associate of Ahmadinejad, who regularly violates Khamenei's orders. The paper hinted that Mashaei initiated the firing because he was disappointed in Moslehi's intelligence reports about the uprisings in the Arab countries, and because of a demand by Israel, transferred to him via Jordanian King Abdallah when the two met in Jordan. Kayhan, Iran, April 21, 2011; Aftab, Iran, April 20, 2011; Fars, Kayhan, Iran, April 19, 2011;, IRNA, Alef, Tabnak, Iran, April 18, 2011; Asr-e Iran, April 17, 2011.

[3] Kayhan (Iran), April 21, 2011.

[4] Alef (Iran), April 23, 2011.

[5] Website of the Supreme Leader, April 23, 2011.

[6] According to Safir News, Ahmadinejad was absent from the government meeting on April 24, whereas Moslehi was present. Safir News (Iran), April 24, 2011.

[7] The Jaras website, associated with the Green Movement, reported that in a meeting with Ahmadinejad, officials from the Tehran municipality had urged the president to come back to the government sessions, but he had replied: "How can you expect me to be patient? The government used to have the authority to appoint ministers and to replace them, but now this authority has been taken away from me.", April 27, 2011. For reports on Ahmadinejad's absence on April 26, 2011, see Entehab, Fars (Iran), April 27, 2011.

[10] Aftab (Iran), April 27, 2011.

[12], April 25, 2011. After Shajouni denied having made these statements, Rooz published an audio recording of the interview.

[13] Raja News (Iran), April 27, 2011.

[14] Sobh-e Sadeq, ISNA (Iran), April 25, 2011. Ayatollah Qorban Ali Dori Najafabadi, Khamenei's representative in the central district, said in a speech to clerics that they must steadfastly resist the "Iranian school" which he called "deviant." Mehr (Iran), April 28, 2011,

[15] Fars, Iran, April 27, 2011

[16] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), April 25, 2011.

[17] Fars (Iran), April 24, 2011

[18] Khabaronline, Mehr (Iran), April 28, 2011.

[19], April 26, 2011; Fars (Iran), April 30, 2011;

[20] Fars (Iran), April 30, 2011. In a discussion in the Majlis, Majlis member 'Abbas-Ali Noora said that a "deviant group" within the institution of the presidency was trying to influence the provincial governors and to gain the support of government ministers in defiance of Khamenei's orders. He mentioned that the Iranian state is the state of the Hidden Imam and that everyone must obey Khamenei. He asked Larijani to convene the Majlis for a secret meeting on the matter. (Fars, Iran, April 30, 2011). In an April 30, meeting with provincial and local authority heads, Khamenei stressed the importance of cooperation and unity among the regime apparatuses, and called for refraining from public disputes that would harm the regime and gladden its enemies (website of the Supreme Leader, Iran, April 30, 2011).

[21] Asr-e Iran (Iran), May 1, 2011.

[22] Javanfekr's website (Iran), April 29, 2011.

[23] IRNA, Fars (Iran), May 1, 2011.

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