TEHRAN — Having successfully suppressed the opposition uprising that followed last summer’s disputed presidential election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters are now renewing their efforts to marginalize another rival group — Iran’s traditional conservatives.
Conservative rivals of Mr. Ahmadinejad are fighting back, publicly accusing him of sidelining clerics and the Parliament, pursuing an “extremist” ideology, and scheming to consolidate control over all branches of Iran’s political system.
“Now that they think they have ejected the reformists, maybe they think it is time to remove their principalist opponents,” said Morteza Nabavi, the editor of a mainstream conservative newspaper, in an unusually blunt interview published Friday in the weekly Panjereh. Iranian conservatives, including Mr. Ahmadinejad’s group, prefer the term “principalism” to “fundamentalism.”
The strikes that broke out in the Tehran bazaar last week, while provoked by a proposed income tax increase, reflect the growing rift between the conservative factions, with the merchants, or bazaaris, on the side on the traditionalists.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has often fed the traditional conservatives’ fears; he has referred to the divide among conservatives, warning that “the regime has only one party” in a speech published Monday on his official Web site that provoked outrage among his conservative rivals.
“I think we are seeing a kind of Iranian McCarthyism, with Ahmadinejad disposing of all the people who are not with him by accusing them of being anti-revolutionary or un-Islamic,” said an Iranian political analyst, who refused to be identified for fear of retribution.
In a sense, the power struggle among conservatives is a return to the status quo before last year’s presidential election, which unleashed the worst internal dissent Iran has experienced in decades. The street protests were widely seen in the West as a fundamental challenge to Iran’s theocracy. But after a year in which outpourings of public anger failed to effect tangible change, the dust has settled to once again reveal a more basic split within Iran’s political elite.
The rift is partly a generational one, with Mr. Ahmadinejad leading a combative cohort of conservatives supported by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. On the other side is an older generation of leaders who derive their authority from their links to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Reformist lawmakers now represent a largely impotent minority in the Parliament.
“Ahmadinejad wants a new definition of conservatism,” the political analyst said. “He wants to say that we are the true conservatives and not you anymore.”
The older conservatives, including clerics, lawmakers and leaders of the bazaar, which is the center of Iran’s ancient system of trade and commerce, have long questioned Mr. Ahmadinejad’s competence and even accused his ministers of corruption. But recently they have gone further, accusing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction of distorting the principles of the Islamic Revolution and following a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy.
To some, those criticisms amount to a veiled plea by the old-line conservatives to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to rein in the president or even to remove him.
The divisions erupted last month when conservative members of Parliament voted to block Mr. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to seize control of Iran’s largest academic institution, Azad University, which has campuses throughout the country and enormous financial assets. The university was founded by Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, a former president and one of the central figures among traditional conservatives. After the vote, a spokesman for Mr. Ahmadinejad declared that the lawmakers had “aided the conspiracy,” a phrase often used against street protesters and terrorist groups.
The next day, a government-backed demonstration formed outside the Parliament building, with protesters denouncing Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament and a conservative rival to Mr. Ahmadinejad. “We will reveal the treacherous MPs,” read one poster shown in pictures published by ILNA, a semiofficial Iranian news agency. In Qum, pro-government students distributed leaflets saying “Mr. Larijani, give us back our vote, you no longer represent us.”
Mr. Larijani struck back, deriding his critics as “impudent, without logic and controversy mongers.”
Ayatollah Khamenei has tried to appear neutral in the university dispute, issuing orders to Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Rafsanjani that both sides should suspend efforts to make changes to the university’s charter.
Since then, another front has opened up against the administration. Members of Iran’s merchant class, the bazaaris, have risen up to challenge Mr. Ahmadinejad’s plans to squeeze them for more tax revenue. Tehran’s central Grand Bazaar, a vast, labyrinthine complex of arched tunnels and courtyards, has been closed in protest for more than a week, and the strike has spread to other major cities.
Though the political dimension of this dispute has yet to fully take shape, Iran’s merchant class has strong links with the traditional conservative party, the Motalefeh, whose members also have crucial positions in Azad University. Mr. Rafsanjani was once a member of Motalefeh and continues to maintain strong links with it.
Traditional conservatives have clashed with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s administration over a number of issues in the past year, including controversial cabinet appointments and a major effort to overhaul Iran’s decades-old system of state subsidies. In April, tensions increased when conservative lawmakers called for the arrest of Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, on corruption charges.
But lately, the language has sharpened on both sides. On Monday, one prominent conservative lawmaker, Omidvar Rezai, warned that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government had violated the Iranian Constitution and that the Parliament “may have to make use of its legal powers,” including impeachment and the removal of the president, according to the news Web site Khabar Online.
Last month, many conservatives were shocked when Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, was prevented from making a speech by pro-Ahmadinejad hecklers at an event to commemorate his grandfather’s death.
“The behavior of extremists who are not open to debate or logic has opened a divide within the principalists,” said Mohammad Ashfrafi-Esfahani, a senior cleric and a member of the body that oversees Iran’s political parties, in comments published by ILNA. “This group spares no one, not even the house of the imam.” Ayatollah Khomeini is referred to in Iran as the imam.
A June 21 editorial on Khabar Online, which is believed to be linked to Mr. Larijani, warned of “an extreme movement, wearing the clothes of Islam and the revolution.”
Mr. Nabavi, the newspaper editor, also suggested that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction belonged to a cult — banned decades ago by Ayatollah Khomeini — that puts great emphasis on the prophesied return of Shiite Islam’s 12th imam, who is said to have disappeared in the ninth century. The accusation is familiar, but conservatives have until now refrained from making it so clearly and openly.
“These people say they have direct contact with the 12th imam so they can lead us,” Mr. Nabavi said in the interview. “This is not just a matter of opposition to government by the clergy but something much deeper.”