Four years ago the re-election of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which millions considered fraudulent and led to months of violent protest, marked the elimination of the country’s reformists at the hands of their hard-line rivals. Now a new and equally bitter struggle is in full cry—between two different types of hardliner, fighting over an Islamic Republic that has been sapped by international sanctions. Less than two months before the presidential poll, the contest resembles nothing so much as a game of chicken. In the middle of the road stand Mr Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president, with his presumed dauphin: the suave, ambitious Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The two men are almost family; the president’s son is married to Mr Mashaei’s daughter. They also share apparently limitless reserves of self-confidence, disdain for the revolutionary old guard of crusty clerics, and a yen for millenarian Shiism (see article) that traditionalists see as almost heretical.
The approaching juggernaut is manned by these same traditionalists. They long to be rid of Mr Ahmadinejad and fear that he intends to stay in charge after manoeuvring his nominee into the presidential palace. So, they are doing everything they can to stop Mr Mashaei from standing. They threaten him with disqualification by a vetting body, prepare legal cases against him and his other allies, and damn him as a fraud and as a “friend of sedition”.
The president and his ally seem unfazed. They were recently out pressing the flesh in the northern province of Semnan, where the president, with Mr Mashaei in attendance, boasted of the warm reception he had received at the funeral of his old Venezuelan friend, Hugo Chávez, and promised an adoring crowd more of the financial largesse he has spent the past eight years doling out. To the ayatollahs and their placemen in the Revolutionary Guard, the subversions of Mr Ahmadinejad and his friend Mr Mashaei are even more sinister than those of the reformists—because they come from within. On his trip to Venezuela, Mr Ahmadinejad was photographed giving an unIslamic hug to Mr Chávez’s grieving mother. Mr Mashaei seems to enjoy nationalist poetry more than the Koran. Their camp has adopted a slogan, “Long Live Spring”, that brings to mind the Arab uprisings of 2011.
The president is trying to make it hard for the Council of Guardians, a body of clerics and lay jurists which weeds out undesirable candidates, to disqualify Mr Mashaei after the formal registration of candidates starts next month. Mr Ahmadinejad trumpets his support for “the people” against a small group who “think they own the country”. And he is not without ammunition of his own.