Iran's spy chief took his seat at a planned Cabinet meeting in Tehran and waited with the other ministers for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The embittered president never showed up.
It was all another bit of political theater last week amid Iran's current _ and deeply complex _ power plays between the increasing confident Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi and the suddenly defensive Ahmadinejad, who refuses to accept Moslehi and has boycotted Cabinet sessions despite an order from the country's highest authority.
Political dustups are nothing new to Iran, where parliament bickers regularly and Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics have traded tense moments. But few can match this one for its raw nerve and serious stakes, which reach into the highest levels of how Iran is ruled.
In the balance is a host of big-ticket questions: Ahmadinejad's political stature in his final two years in office, his ability to push back against growing challenges from parliament and other critics, and whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seeking to exert more control as key ally Syria faces an uprising.
Ahmadinejad could hardly have picked a more potent adversary than Moslehi, who was restored to the powerful intel post by Khamenei just hours after resigning April 17 apparently under pressure from Ahmadinejad.
The embarrassing slap has invited speculation that Khamenei's once-blanket support for Ahmadinejad _ particularly in the critical months of chaos after his disputed re-election in 2009 _ could be now fraying by his repeated attempts to push the limits of his powers.
It also shows the importance the ruling clerics place in the intelligence minister, who is deeply involved in both Iran's international policies and its domestic spy networks that are pillars of the regime's control.
A serious fall from Khamenei's favor would undoubtedly leave Ahmadinejad's clout diminished as a lameduck leader and test the loyalty of his main supporters, including the Revolutionary Guard that will have a central role in picking the candidates for his successor in 2013.
Ahmadinejad's opponents, meanwhile, have seized the moment. A group of lawmakers has revived a petition drive for Ahmadinejad to be called before the chamber for questioning, giving his critics room to raise the extremely unlikely _ but still headline snagging _ scenario of impeachment.
A group of 216 lawmakers, more than two-third the 290 members, issued a letter to Ahmadinejad urging him to call off his Cabinet boycott for the good of the country, the Shargh newspaper in Iran reported Saturday.
"You are expected to follow the supreme leader," the lawmakers wrote.
On Friday, a hard-line cleric used his nationally broadcast sermon to indirectly warn Ahmadinejad that he would be moving into dangerous territory by escalating his challenges to Khamenei.
"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.
Last week, Khamenei even made a rare public rebuke to Ahmadinejad, saying he will not hesitate to intervene in government affairs whenever necessary.
"Yet Ahmadinejad remains defiant," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "From Iran's point of view, this is not the time for this kind of internal stalemate."
Iran's top Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, is struggling to quell a growing revolt that threatens his regime. In the Gulf, Iran's standing has taken sharp blows after Sunni leaders accused Tehran of backing Shiite uprisings in Bahrain and elsewhere. Bahrain's main business group called Saturday for a boycott of Iranian goods.
At the same time, Ahmadinejad is backed into a dispute he cannot be expected to win.
He accepted Moslehi's resignation after apparent disputes over decisions by Moslehi _ the only Islamic cleric in the Cabinet _ to dismiss close Ahmadinejad allies in the ministry.
But Moslehi appears to have a direct pipeline to Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state.
"Ahmadinejad may have overreached this time," said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "It seems that he didn't expect this kind of response from Khamenei."
The signs were there, however.
Khamenei has repeatedly praised the 54-year-old Moslehi, who previously served as Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary Guard's vast civilian network, known as Basiji, that serves as the ruling system's proxy in nearly every neighborhood around the country. When Moslehi was appointed to the intelligence post in 2009 _ as part of political shake-ups after the postelection protests _ he told parliament that the ministry's work would "bring a smile" to the supreme leader.
In March, Moslehi relayed a message from Khamenei to the ministry staff that they should not pay attention to "political trends or individuals" but instead work under the direction of the supreme leader. This was widely interpreted as an endorsement of proposals to make the intelligence services a special organization directly under the supreme leader _ the same status as the Revolutionary Guard.
For years, Ahmadinejad has counted on the Guard as the bedrock of his support. But even that could be showing some stress fractures.
The day after Khamenei's intervention to save Moslehi, the Guard-run newspaper Javan slammed Ahmadinejad and his close aides. It suggested that "unsavory elements" aligned with Ahmadinejad sought to use the intelligence ministry for political gain _ an apparent reference to efforts at undermining political rivals for next year's parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential race.
Then the Bakeri Online website linked to Ahmadinejad fired back, claiming that Moslehi wanted to sell out the ministry to the Revolutionary Guard.
"It's getting very complicated for Ahmadinejad now," said Alfaraj. "He sought to make Moslehi a scapegoat. He feels he has to stick to it. He's pushed himself into a very tight corner."