Ahmedinejad at unveliing of new weapons system
President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad during a ceremony to unveil Iranian-made weapons, August 21, 2012. Photo by AP
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A prominent Iranian cleric has called on the Islamic Republic's leadership to avoid war with Israel. In a sermon marking the end of Ramadan, Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a vocal opponent of the Ahmadinejad regime, urged the leadership to avoid provoking Israel and "acting as warmongers."

"We must do everything to prevent a Zionist attack on Iran, because if that happens, Iran will be severely damaged, even if the Zionist regime is damaged even more," he said during a sermon marking Eid al-Fitr in the city Qom.

"In war, one does not give out halva and bread," Sanei said, in one of the most critical speeches to date of Tehran's belligerent tone against Israel. "We must not act as warmongers in our country and encourage war. The country is currently facing a unique situation, and the most important thing to do is to shut the mouth of the Zionist regime with our thoughts, our pens and an effort to take the right actions."

Saneil, 75, is considered a role model to millions of Shi'ites, and a pillar of the pro-reform Green Revolution. From time to time, he uses his public status as a platform to preach in favor of civil rights and gender equality, and against suicide attacks.

In his sermon, Sanei did not withhold criticism of Israel, warning that if it attacks Iran "it would be playing with fire, and the response would be one that Israel could not recover from."

Sanei's criticism follows a letter written last week by two former ministers in Mahoud Ahmadinejad's government. Former Interior Minister Mostafa Pur-Mohammadi and former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki (who was fired by Ahmadinejad) wrote that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must establish an executive council to manage the country in the coming year, and expropriate authority from the executive branch (headed by Ahmadinejad). "In light of the country's sensitive situation, it is recommended that a council be established, comprising leaders of the regime's three branches, in addition to thinkers, to run the affairs of the state," they wrote in the letter, excerpts of which were quoted in the "Iran" newspaper. A similar letter was written a month ago by a group of parliament members who demanded a special council be created to manage the country's economic sector.

The ministers' letter (which, in fact, was published in a pro- Ahmadinejad newspaper) reflects the political discourse prevalent among the president's opponents. In the last year these opponents have threatened to oust Ahmadinejad and even took concrete steps toward doing so, such as holding parliamentary hearings. And yet, thus far, Ahmadinejad's seat is being protected by Khamenei.

Meanwhile, Iran's policy regarding Syria, and its support of Assad, is also drawing criticism from within the regime. Critics – who have not made their opposition public – have been blasted by Khamenei as "unqualified people who do not know what they are talking about." According to the nationalist-religious coalition website Meli Mazhabi, Khamenei stated that "Syria is (Iran's) first line of defense. We fight there for our own sake. Our enemies will come after us once they are done with Syria, and we are fighting (there) in order to slow down and counter this plan."

A statement in a similar vein was made last week by Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and former presidential candidate. According to Razaee, Iran is fighting the U.S. in Syria as part of a struggle to shape the Middle East.

And yet, all of this criticism represents only a sliver of the deep conflicts plaguing the relationships between the president, the parliament and other elements within the country's leadership; conflicts that are kept from the public by state censorship and oversight. Still, while Khamenei demands unity in the face of external threats, it is doubtful he would order structural changes to the regime (even though a year ago he said other systems besides a presidential one can work in Iran). These dissenting voices will not change the country's nuclear policy, over which there is a national consensus: that a nuclear program for peaceful purposes is an interest - and a prerogative - that no country has the right to undermine.