Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - Reuters - 8.5.11
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seen here in 2009. Photo by Reuters
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How far will Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad take things with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei? Is he misreading the Iranian political map, or does he really believe that some miracle or magic trick will shift the balance in his favor in this unprecedented clash?

On Saturday, Iranian websites reported that Khamenei gave the president an ultimatum: Bring back the intelligence minister you fired against my will or resign. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, insists that appointing and dismissing ministers is his prerogative as head of the government.

The conflict began around two weeks ago, when Ahmadinejad, in a laconic statement, fired his intelligence minister - an associate of Khamenei. In response, the supreme leader instructed the minister to stay at his post. Ahmadinejad reacted by skipping two cabinet meetings and barring the intelligence minister from taking part in a third.

The rift between the two men has produced some unprecedented alliances. The commander of the Revolutionary Guard, an armed force seen as the president's staunchest supporter, and conservative clerics have made clear they support Khamenei.

Disagreements between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are nothing new, but this time the president appears to have taken on more than he can handle. He appears to be motivated by a desire to retain influence even after the end of his term, having his son-in-law elected president and returning after a one-term break. Some observers say he may even have aspirations to reduce the clerics' involvement in government.

A disloyal intelligence minister would be an obstacle to that. But the damage he's causing is enormous. He is forcing Khamenei to act like a politician and is confronting him with an extraordinary dilemma. If he intervenes, Khamenei will work against the election results he himself created. If he doesn't, the position of supreme leader will lose its clout.

Meanwhile, Khamenei and his allies are using the old and tested method. Some of the president's associates have been arrested, and websites are slowly filling up with reports on the intelligence minister's corruption carried out with the president's knowledge.