Iran's supreme leader publicly rebuked the president over his removal of a top official, a rare show of discontent with the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the country's most powerful figure.
The rebuke, issued in the press yesterday, quickly raised questions whether the supreme leader is backing off support of Ahmadinejad in the president's tough battle for a second term in June 12 elections.
If so, that could be a heavy blow to Ahmadinejad. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds ultimate power in Iran, at the top of the clerical hierarchy above elected figures. If he is seen as moving away from Ahmadinejad, the president's conservative base could take it as a signal to back an alternative candidate.
The flap centered around control of a body that organizes the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which traditionally comes under Khamenei's vast powers. The supreme leader overturned the government's removal of the head of the organization.
The dispute may appear like a minor turf battle. But some observers saw it as a sign of Khamenei distancing himself from Ahmadinejad, whose popularity has fallen among some Iranians because of the ailing economy. His critics also accuse him of hurting Iran with comments denying the Holocaust and by taking a tough stance over Iran's nuclear program.
Political analyst Saeed Leilaz called the rebuke "unprecedented" and said it "clearly means that Khamenei doesn't insist that Ahmadinejad deserves to remain as president. That's the message."
Ahmadinejad faces a strong challenge in the elections from reformists, who call for greater freedoms at home and better relations with the West. At the same time, Ahmadinejad has a challenger from within his conservative camp, former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei.
Leilaz said Rezaei would have never entered the race without consultation with Khamenei first. His candidacy is "another indication that Khamenei is keeping his options open to deal with a president different from Ahmadinejad," he said. Notably, the largest conservative political faction, Jame-e-Rouhaniat-e-Mobarez, has not endorsed Ahmadinejad in the elections, saying it would have no preferred choice.
Still, given Iran's notoriously murky politics, it is hard to gauge where Khamenei stands. The supreme leader has overruled Ahmadinejad at times in the past, only to later reaffirm his strong support for the president. In elections, he never publicly endorses any candidate.
The dispute began last month when Ahmadinejad's government put the hajj committee under Iran's tourism authority. One of Ahmadinejad's vice presidents then dismissed the hajj organization chief, Mostafa Khaksar Qahroudi, and installed a replacement.
That brought a protest from the supreme leader's representative on hajj affairs, who called the government's move illegal.