At the heart of Iranian politics there is an irreconcilable tension, rooted in the democratic nature of the 1979 revolution and the undemocratic power structure that emerged afterwards. On the one hand, there is the country's quasi-republican institutions and regular, albeit controlled elections; on the other is the state's guiding concept of god as the sole sovereign, and the Supreme Leader as the unimpeachable manifestation of this divine authority.
The contradictory aspects of Iran's political system are poised to collide in the June presidential election. The testy relationships between the Supreme Leader and elected presidents has long been the most obvious reminder of the tensions within the Islamic Republic: As Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, the closest ally of Khamenei, announced recently, every president since Khamenei became leader 24 years ago -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- has lacked a firm enough belief in his divine mandate. In the coming election, the Supreme Leader has the difficult task of ensuring the election of a pliant president without provoking the rise of uncontrollable domestic discontent.
Three different sources of tension threaten to make this election problematic for the Islamic Republic. First, the widening rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei -- supported by his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the conservative clergy -- is increasingly hard to hide, even manage. A key element of this feud is Ahmadinejad's effort to not only challenge the authority of Khamenei, but to ensure the election of his own hand-picked successor -- Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who at one time held 14 important posts in the government and is also father-in-law to the president's son.
For a long time, it has been the common lore of Iranian politics that Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are planning to do a Dmitry Medvedev-Vladimir Putin duet in Iran, swapping the presidency back and forth between each other. The conservative clergy, including Khamenei himself, have in the past openly objected to Mashaei, accusing him of all manner of malfeasance and disreputable views -- particularly the belief that Shiism's 12th Imam has been directly guiding and managing the affairs of the Ahmadinejad camp. As conservative clerics never tire of claiming, such "contacts" and "guidance" from the 12th Imam are the monopoly of the Supreme Leader -- and a critical source of his claimed legitimacy.
Money will be a key weapon in this struggle for power: According to sources inside the regime, Ahmadinejad has amassed billions of dollars in a slush fund to use in the upcoming election. In an unprecedented act, the government's own intelligence minister -- who Ahmadinejad had fired, but was then reinstalled by the special order of Khamenei -- warned last month that government funds might be used illicitly in favor of one candidate. The government also announced a plan to hire hundreds of thousands of new employees, a move denounced by Ahmadinejad's opponents as an attempt to place his supporters in areas needed to ensure his victory. The hiring spree was subsequently declared null by the Government Accounting Office, which added that governors who hire anyone will be prosecuted.
The vitriol between the Ahmadinejad and Khamenei camps is only getting worse. Some in the regime have accused Ahmadinejad of being in secret negotiations with not just the United States, but with the domestic opposition. High-ranking officials in the regime's security and intelligence apparatus have warned of planned disturbances even larger than those after the 2009 election, where an estimated 3 million people came out in Tehran to protest what they considered Ahmadinejad's rigged reelection. This time, the officials claim, the "troubles" will begin in smaller cities and spread to the capital.
Ahmadinejad has proved his willingness to strike back against his rivals. The president's camp is reported to have many potentially damaging documents and recordings from prominent members of the regime, giving the upcoming election a peculiar air of theatrical and political anticipation. The show has, in fact, already begun: In February, Ahmadinejad played a recording in the Majlis that purported to show the speaker's brother asking for kick-backs.
Considering the increasingly harsh criticism of Ahmadinejad by high-ranking members of the IRGC and the president's continued defiance of Khamenei, there is even a low possibility the president might not be allowed to finish his term. Last month, the Khamenei-controlled state television broadcast a half-hour documentary ostensibly about the impeachment of the Islamic Republic's first president, Abolhassan Banisadr. However, many saw it as a direct warning to Ahmadinejad that a similar faith might await him if he continues on his current path.
The second source of tension revolves around whether reformists will be allowed to participate in the election -- and even if they will want to. If they do participate, the question will be who they are allowed to field as a candidate. Khamenei recently met with a delegation of three reformist leaders, and 18 reformist groups subsequently asked for another meeting with the supreme leader -- indicating at the same time their view that the only viable candidate who can help navigate Iran through this period is Mohammad Khatami. Some reformists have also named Rafsanjani as a possible compromise savior.