A hard-line cleric warned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Friday to end an escalating power struggle with Iran's supreme leader, calling it a religious obligation to do so and accusing the country's enemies of trying to sow rifts among its leadership.
The split threatens to destabilize Iran at a time of tension with the West over Tehran's disputed nuclear program and appears to center on a battle for influence between the two men over next year's parliamentary election and a presidential election in 2013.
"Obedience to the supreme leader is a religious obligation as well as a legal obligation, without any doubt," said Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami. He did not mention Ahmadinejad by name, but it was clear he was referring to the president.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final word on all matters of state in Iran, and hard-liners consider him above the law and answerable only to God. He has been a strong backer of the president in the past, particular in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June 2009. Claims of vote fraud set off months of street protests that grew into the strongest challenge to Iran's ruling system since its birth in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Some have accused the president and his allies of trying to amass power and challenge Khamenei's ultimate authority in the run-up to the elections.
Their most recent confrontation involved Ahmadinejad's dismissal this month of the country's powerful intelligence minister, whom Khamenei then quickly reinstated in a slap to the president. In protest, the president skipped two Cabinet meetings this week.
The cleric, Khatami, told worshippers at a Muslim prayer service in the capital that Iran's enemies are seeking to create the impression that there are deep divisions among Iranian leaders.
He said Iranian officials should not react in a way that could confirm such internal tensions.
"In a friendly way, I am telling the officials, "Do not play in the enemies' ground. Do not fill the empty boxes of the enemy's crossword," Khatami said.
Khamenei has made clear he will defend his powers, including the authority to name Cabinet ministers, warning in a speech last week that he will intervene in the government's affairs whenever necessary. His words were a sharp rebuke to Ahmadinejad.