TEHRAN, Iran – A hard-line publication called on security forces Wednesday to arrest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest political aide amid a widening political power struggle over who will shape Iran's next government.
The demand by the Ya Lesarat weekly, considered the mouthpiece for some of Iran's most extremist factions, does not necessarily mean authorities will act. But it reflects the fierce internal battles between Ahmadinejad and ultra-conservative groups who accuse him of trying to defy the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The heart of the crisis is over attempts to block Ahmadinejad and his loyalists from controlling the next parliament and influencing the candidates to succeed Ahmadinejad when he leaves office in 2013. Ahmadinejad's critics claim he seeks to expand his powers at the expense of the ruling clerics, who were once his solid allies.
The commentary in the hard-line weekly urges the arrest of Ahmadinejad's chief-of-staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, calling him a "very dangerous person who is propping up a new cult" — a reference to accusations that Mashaei seeks to undermine the ruling system in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mashaei is also despised by hard-liners for views that elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia and his statements suggesting Iran can oppose Israel's government but can be friendly with the Israeli people.
Authorities have already arrested up to 25 people loyal to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei in recent weeks, including Kazem Kiapasha, a close Mashaei ally. Officials also have blocked half a dozen websites allied to them.
Kiapasha was taken into custody Tuesday over his alleged role in producing the controversial film "Reappearance Is Very Near" that depicts Ahmadinejad and Khamenei as two close companions of Mahdi, a revered 9th century saint known as the Hidden Imam. Shiite Muslims believe Mahdi will reappear before Judgment Day to end tyranny and promote justice in the world.
Millions of DVDs of the film were distributed throughout Iran even as it was condemned by senior clerics in Qom, the country's seat of Shiite scholarship, who say no one can claim when Mahdi will reappear.
Pressures intensified after the president's spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, said last week that Ahmadinejad was under a "spell" from Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son.
In devastating remarks against Mashaei, Yazdi claimed he was "more than 90 percent" certain that Ahmadinejad "has been bewitched".
Hard-line activist Davoud Karimi said the recent wave of arrests are a response to calls from Yazdi and others who see Mashaei as a threat to Iran's system of clerical rule.
The crisis began last month after Ahmadinejad forced out his powerful intelligence chief, Heidar Moslehi, as part of an internal dispute. But Khamenei promptly reinstated Moslehi in a public slap to Ahmadinejad, who boycotted Cabinet meetings for 10 days before finally giving in to Khamenei's order.
The high-profile confrontation emboldened Ahmadinejad's critics and even brought rebukes from key allies such as Iran's mighty Revolutionary Guard.