This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 03/06/2011
To jump or not to jump? For Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that has become the question.
Not long ago, Ahmadinejad was regarded as the most powerful of the five presidents the Islamic Republic in its three decades of existence.
With the opposition "green" movement almost silenced, his administration faced no serious challenge within the Khomeinist movement establishment. Ahmadinejad also marked some success selling his doctrine of "Iranian Islam" as a substitute for the hotchpotch concocted by Ayatollah Khomeini. Translated into 30 languages, his authorised biography, "Ahmadinejad: The Miracle of the Century", was supposed to have sold a million copies.
His entourage boasted that, in the 2009 presidential election he would have won 35 million, rather than 25 million accorded him. The entourage claimed that, Ahmadinejad lost 10 million votes because of his association with "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei.
The entourage also claimed that Ahmadinejad supporters are poised to win a two-thirds majority in next year's parliamentary election.
Today, things look different.
Tehran is full of rumors that, deeply depressed, Ahmadinejad may be thinking of stepping down.
The media controlled by Khamenei maintain a daily barrage of attacks against the president.
The other day, the newspaper Kayhan ran this headline: "Ahmadinejad on Way to Anathema (Takfir)".
Media attacks may not be the main source of Ahmadinejad's reported depression. Hardly a day passes without Khamenei vetoing a decision of the president.
Ahmadinejad wanted to sack Heydar Moslehi, the Minister of Intelligence and Security. Khamenei intervened to reinstate the minister whose incompetence had become proverbial.
Ahmadinejad sulked for 11 days before swallowing "the biter pill" and re-admitting the mullah Moslehi to the Cabinet.
Ahmadinejad wanted to merge four ministries to cut bureaucratic costs. Khamenei intervened to refer the matter to the Islamic Majis, Iran's fake parliament.
The "Supreme Guide" also ordered that new ministers submit to a vote of confidence in the Majlis.
The message that Ahmadinejad is in office at Khamenei's pleasure is circulated by the latter's entourage. The other day, Muhammad-Reza Bahonar, a Khamenei mouthpiece in the Majlis, told the press that the "Supreme Guide" wanted " to retain the president until the natural end of his administration" in 2013.
The media controlled by Khamenei miss no opportunity to brand Ahmadinejad's closest associate, Esfandiar Masha'i, as "an enemy of Islam", a " Persian nationalist", and even "an agent of Imperialism."
In a statement circulated in Tehran last week, Hezbollah, a group controlled by security services, threatened to kill Masha'i.
At the same time, Khamenei has ordered the Larijani brothers to prepare the "after Ahmadinejad". The eldest brother, Ali-Ardeshir, the Speaker of the Majlis, is already casting himself as the next president of the republic. The second brother, Sadeq, who wears the clothes of a mullah, is using his position as Chief Justice to threaten Ahmadinejad with "legal consequences" of the government's unspecified decisions. A third Larijani brother, Muhammad-Jawad, has informed British contacts that with "Ahmadinejad's imminent end", there would be " a new beginning in Iranian foreign policy."
In a bid to repair relations with Riyadh, Ahmadinejad wanted to dispatch Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi to Saudi Arabia for a "working visit". Khamenei signaled his opposition through newspapers controlled by his office.
For weeks, Ahmadinejad tired to appoint a Governor for the Fars province. His choice was chased away by Khamenei henchmen laying siege to the governor's office in Shiraz.
Hardly a day passes without a mullah, including some on his payroll until recently, attacking Ahmadinejad. Often, it is clear that Khamenei offered a fatter envelope to the mullah concerned.
The military are also ranged against Ahmadinejad. Once regarded as Ahmadinejad's principal supporters, Revolutionary Guard generals are appearing on TV to denounce the president's "deviant tendency."
Even on minor issues, Khamenei is advertising his authority.
Last week, Ahmadinejad's office approved a decision by the Iranian Academy to replace the French word "police", in use in Iran since the 19th century, with the Persian word "passvar."
This was part of Ahmadinejad's decision to "purify" the Persian vocabulary by getting rid of Arabic and other foreign words.
Khamenei vetoed the decision as" another sign of Iranian nationalism" which he regards as a threat to Islam.
Few in Tehran missed the irony of a mullah defending a French word against a Persian equivalent.
Pro-Khamenei newspapers drop hints about "secret contacts" between Ahmadinejad and the "green" opposition to form a front against Khamenei. There is talk of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani setting aside his old hatred of Ahmadinejad in a bid to isolate the "Supreme Guide".
Finally, security forces have arrested over 50 members of Ahmadinejad's entourage, including some close friends, on charges of "spreading unauthorized beliefs".
What does all this mean?
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are at loggerheads.
This is no surprise. As explained in a previous column all presidents have had trouble with the "Supreme Guide" of the time. Sharing power at the summit is always problematic. Unable to fly, a double-headed eagle often tears itself apart.
Initially, Ahmadinejad angered Khamenei by scripting his group out of numerous juicy contracts and business deals.
However, for the first time, the fight may also be about something more than personal power.
Ahmadinejad has realised the bankruptcy of the Khomeinist discourse and is trying to replace it with a pseudo-nationalistic, and perhaps more dangerous, narrative in which the mullahs have no place.
Khamenei may be trying to push Ahmadinejad to the brink in the hope that the president would lose his nerve and throw in the towel.
However, Ahmadinejad might prove a tougher cookie than Khamenei apparently hopes.
My guess is that Ahmadinejad will not jump and, if pushed, would not flee into exile as did the first President of the Islamic Republic Abol-Hassan Banisadr. Nor would Ahmadinejad kowtow to the "Supreme Guide" as did Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.
What about assassination? That is what happened to Muhammad-Ali Raja'i, the second President of the Islamic Republic.
That Khamenei is attacking Ahmadinejad every day is a sign that the "Supreme Guide" is scared. According to a Persian proverb, like a snake, a mullah is most dangerous when frightened.