Iran's supreme leader warned Saturday he will intervene in the government's affairs whenever necessary in a rebuke to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for challenging the clerical leader's all-encompassing authority.
Their most recent confrontation involved Ahmadinejad's dismissal last week of the country's powerful intelligence minister, whom Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then quickly reinstated in a slap to the president.
Ahmadinejad, who has said in the past that Khamenei was like a father to him, has enjoyed strong support from the supreme leader, especially in the tumultuous period after his disputed re-election in 2009. At times, though, he has defied the country's most powerful figure.
Some have accused the president and his allies of trying to amass more power and challenge Khamenei's ultimate authority in the run-up to parliamentary elections next year and presidential elections in 2013.
"I won't allow, as long as I'm alive, an iota of deviation of this massive movement of the nation," Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on state TV Saturday. "In principle, I have no intention to intervene in government affairs ... unless I feel an expediency is being ignored as it was the case recently," he said, referring to the dispute over the intelligence minister.
Khamenei, who was addressing hundreds of Iranian citizens in his residence in Tehran, said he was right and he would stand by his words.
"With the help of God, ... I firmly stand by our right stance," he said.
Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi was forced to resign last week after apparent disputes with Ahmadinejad. The president publicly accepted his resignation but Khamenei ordered him to remain in the Cabinet.
In a sign of mounting tensions, Ahmadinejad has reportedly refused to give in to the order and has not invited Moslehi to the latest Cabinet meeting.
The escalating dispute with the supreme leader will likely overshadow the remaining two years of Ahmadinejad's presidency. Ahmadinejad's gamble appears to be aimed at setting up a confidant to become the next president, analysts say. He needs to control the Intelligence Ministry in order to influence the next parliament as well as who becomes the next president, they say.
Khamenei is believed to be intent on helping shape a new political team, absent of Ahmadinejad loyalists, to lead the next government.
Without meaningful political parties in Iran, unpredictable political factions (groups) have emerged before elections. Khamenei, analysts say, feels threatened by a single political faction remaining in office for more than eight years.
The dispute has also pointed to a potential weakness in the heart of Ahmadinejad's government, as its base of support shrinks among parliament members and others.
A statement signed by 216 parliament members _ more than two-thirds of the 290-seat chamber _ warned Ahmadinejad Wednesday that he cannot disobey Khamenei, who has the last word in all state affairs.
Hard-liners consider Khamenei to stand above the law and be answerable only to God.
A conservative news website, alef.ir, said lawmakers might summon Ahmadinejad to parliament for questioning if he does not back down. If they do, Ahmadinejad would be the first president to be called to parliament to answer questions since the Islamic Revolution 32 years ago.
The dispute became public when hard-line media published the text of Khamenei's order to Moslehi to remain in his job. In a humiliation of the president, Khamenei didn't write to Ahmadinejad because the president ignored the supreme leader's written order two days earlier, according to conservatives websites.
Traditionally, the supreme leader must approve the appointments for the ministers of foreign affairs, intelligence, defense and interior.
Conservatives have praised Moslehi for cracking down on the opposition after the disputed 2009 presidential election and discovering the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus, which made its way into Iran's nuclear and industrial sites.
He may have angered Ahmadinejad by firing a deputy who is an ally of one of the president's confidants, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Mashaei has criticized Iran's intelligence services for what he said were failures to predict the political upheaval sweeping the Middle East.