Iran's embattled president fired back Wednesday after a wave of arrests against his allies, claiming it's part of a "politically motivated" campaign to undermine his government and display the power hard-line forces loyal to the country's ruling clerics.
The sharp-edged accusations by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad highlight his stunning transition from favored son of the theocracy to an apparent adversary after seeking to expand the authority of the presidency and challenge the clerics' grip on shaping politics and policies.
Dozens of the president's allies have been detained over the past months _ including four senior government officials last week _ in the evolving power struggle.
"These moves (arrests) are politically motivated. It's clear to us that it is aimed at pressuring the government," the official IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
He also warned authorities to keep the political purges from reaching the ministers in his government.
"The cabinet is the red line," he was quoted as saying. "But if my colleagues are accused then I have the legal ... responsibility to stand up and defend my colleagues."
For Ahmadinejad, the showdown has left him politically weakened with nearly two years left on his second and final term _ suggesting that the Islamic establishment will keep a tight rein on affairs and is unlikely to offer any dramatic shifts in the standoff with the West over Iran's nuclear program.
It appears that the ruling system will block anyone Ahmadinejad tries to promote as his potential successor. He also faces huge obstacles to bringing more political allies into parliament in elections set for early next year.
Hard-liners also have called for the arrest of Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Mashaei has been denounced as the head of a "deviant current" that is perceived as questioning the system of clerical rule brought by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran's hierarchy remains unchallenged with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holding the final word in all important decisions. But Ahmadinejad has been the target of a backlash for trying to impose too much autonomy in how the government is run, including defying Khamenei on his choice for the powerful intelligence minister post and remaining loyal to Mashaei.
Last week, the newly appointed deputy foreign minister was forced to step down under pressure from hard-liners who view him as too close to the chief of staff. In his resignation letter, Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh bitterly complained about "dastardly manipulations and plentiful injustices" from his critics. He was detained two days later.
Ahmadinejad had appeared to be pushing Mashaei as his political heir for the June 2013 presidential election. The attacks against Mashaei by ultraconservatives, however, make it almost certain that his political career is stalled.
Ahmadinejad has strongly defended Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son.