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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands for the national anthem beneath a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran

Iran’s religious leadership criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday after pictures released Sunday showed a tearful Ahmadinejad hugging Hugo Chavez’s mother during the deceased Venezuelan leader’s funeral. The incident marked the second time in less than a week that the ayatollahs, Iran’s religious leaders, criticized Ahmadinejad for un-Islamic behavior. The religious leaders also took issue with Ahmadinejad’s statement that Chavez would be resurrected on Judgment Day along with Jesus Christ and Muhammad al-Mahdi, the hidden 12th Imam of Shia Islam.

Ahmadinejad is used to criticism from clerics. The president’s policies and political ambitions have long put him at odds with the religious establishment that directs Iran’s complex political power structures. The Iranian president’s statements and the ayatollahs’ reactions may seem laughable, but comments made Tuesday by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the former head of Iran’s judiciary, should be taken seriously, especially ahead of the June 14 presidential election.

President Ahmadinejad is constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term. While in theory this should do much to close the growing rift between the powerful populist leader and his clerical competitors, the ongoing criticism of Ahmadinejad and his policies points to a troubling reality for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and others invested in Iran’s pro-clerical political system. Ahmadinejad, Iran’s first non-clerical president since the country’s 1979 constitution codified the Islamic Revolution, has managed to transform the presidency into a separate pole of power within the Iranian system, one capable of challenging the authority of the Supreme Leader.

Ahmadinejad’s popular support has made it difficult for the clerical establishment to censure him. The president pursued a number of populist policies, including attempts to distribute some of Iran’s hydrocarbon wealth among the country’s rural and urban poor. His aggressive foreign policy initiatives, such as his visit to the disputed Abu Musa Islands and his well-publicized friendship with Chavez, have placed Ahmadinejad in a unique position, one that competes more directly with the Supreme Leader.

“[T]he political battle between Ahmadinejad and the clerical system has substantively changed Iran’s political landscape.” – Stratfor analysis

Although Ahmadinejad’s term is coming to an end, he wants his policies and political movement to live on, and the clerics’ repeated criticisms reveal their unease with Ahmadinejad’s ability to maneuver within Iran’s convoluted system of checks and balances. Iran’s political system grants the clerics significant oversight. They vet candidates for public office, and even with the election almost three months away, no list of approved candidates has been announced. As the clerical establishment, led by the Supreme Leader, tries to flatten Ahmadinejad’s popular appeal, the president is threatening to leverage his public support in order to guarantee the approval of the candidate he chooses as successor.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) offers his condolences to Elena Frias, mother of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, during the funeral services in Caracas March 8, 2013. (Reuters)

At the root of this wrangling, beyond the personality disputes and the competition among political factions, is a broader ideological dispute. In fact, the political battle between Ahmadinejad and the clerical system has substantively changed Iran’s political landscape. This is perhaps most visible in the slow but steady rise of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose former commanders have increased their political presence and economic holdings to fill the void created by Ahmadinejad and the clerics.

Still, Ahmadinejad faces considerable constraints in trying to counter clerical dominance through a third party – even a close political ally. There are also no guarantees that Ahmadinejad’s popularity will transfer to a chosen successor. As Western-backed sanctions exacerbate economic difficulties in Iran, another political figure may well try to buy the support of the masses with a new subsidy regime, undermining Ahmadinejad’s populist policies. What we can see, however, is an ongoing reaction by the clerical establishment against Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

The analysis Strife Within Iran’s Divided Political System is republished with the permission of Stratfor.

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