Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now discovering what his predecessors in Islamic Iran's unique dual system of government all learned to their sorrow: You serve at the pleasure of the supreme leader, and he prefers his presidents weak.
In the aftermath of a failed attempt by Ahmadinejad to fire Iran's intelligence minister last month, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his surrogates have moved against supporters of Ahmadinejad and of his controversial chief aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Two dozen people close to the president and Mashaei have been arrested, including Abbas Amirifar, the prayer leader and head of cultural affairs in the president's office, who reportedly attempted suicide in prison last week. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's top vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was suspended last weekend from holding political office for four years because of unspecified "violations."
It now appears that Ahmadinejad will be forced to jettison Mashaei, a close friend of 30 years whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, if the president intends to remain in office through the end of his term in 2013. And even if he does get rid of Mashaei, Ahmadinejad will be a feeble lame duck, a pale shadow of the seemingly superconfident figure who has strutted the world stage since he was first elected in 2005.
"Everybody smells blood," said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation. "Ahmadinejad's fatal mistake was to challenge Khamenei head-on over the intelligence minister."
Ordered to retain the minister, Heydar Moslehi, Ahmadinejad refused to attend cabinet meetings for 11 days and sought to reaffirm his power by firing three other ministers, including the official in charge of Iran's crucial oil industry.
Increasingly, however, the president finds himself checked at every turn.
On Monday, May 23, a senior presidential advisor, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, announced that presidential trips to the provinces -- a favorite means for Ahmadinejad to distribute largesse, gain rural support, and make speeches covered by Iranian state media -- have been postponed for the time being.
Nor can the president escape abroad to represent Iran in Vienna next month at a major OPEC meeting. On May 20, the Guardian Council -- a powerful, clerical-run body that vets legislation and candidates for office -- declared that Ahmadinejad could not serve as caretaker head of the oil ministry and would have to name someone else. (Iran serves as president of OPEC this year and needs to keep the price of oil as high as possible to finance its budget, pegged to $81.50 a barrel.)