Ahmadinejad Is Losing Iran's Conservatives

At Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pre-inauguration ceremony yesterday, the awkward two-step said it all. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave his imprimatur to the election by officiating the ceremony, but it didn't go entirely according to plan. As Ahmadinejad stepped in to kiss Khamenei's hand, the Supreme Leader stepped back and raised his left hand. The two shuffled back and forth for a few moments before Ahmadinejad said a few words and bent over to kiss Khamenei's shoulder, a sign of deference more common among Arabs than Persians. It was the perfect emblem for the weeks of protest that have begun to cleave the two apart.

Thousands of protestors again poured into the streets of Tehran to protest the ceremony and clashed with riot police yesterday afternoon, and they are getting results: it's beginning to look like the conservative establishment is turning on itself. A government news Web site tried to put the best spin on the ceremony by boastfully showing photos of foreign diplomats in attendance, but former president Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a member of the old guard now aligned with the opposition, were no-shows. Since public support for him began to fray, conservatives have defected in growing numbers. Consider this: more than half a dozen grand ayatollahs in Qum, mainstays of the country's clergy, have criticized the election results—or even Ahmadinejad himself.

Then something even more unexpected happened: two weeks ago, Ahmadinejad had to withdraw his nominee for top cabinet deputy after a firestorm of criticism from hardliners in the regime. The nominee, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai (a relative of Ahmadinejad by marriage), was criticized for a 2008 statement when he said Iranians are "friends of all people in the world, even Israelis." In 2007 Mashai also attended a ceremony in Turkey where women performed a traditional dance without hijab.

At first, Ahmadinejad refused to budge, even though Khamenei made it known he disapproved of Mashai's nomination. Ahmadinejad was blasted by conservative parliamentarians as well as newspapers like Sobh-e Sadegh (affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards) and Ya Lesarat (affiliated with a radical militia called Ansar-e Hezbollah) for disobeying the Supreme Leader. Only after a letter from Khamenei, expressly stating his disapproval, was read on national television did Ahmadinejad withdraw his nomination. But he didn't completely back down: the president appointed Mashai his chief of staff. All of this may seem like insider politics, but it shows that even conservative opponents of Ahmadinejad smell blood.

Of course, they're coming late to the party; liberals, reformers, and general election skeptics have been challenging Ahmadinejad openly. On Saturday the regime started a mass trial of detainees, including dozens of protestors, journalists, academics, and even a former vice president. (NEWSWEEK reporter Maziar Bahari, who has been detained for more than six weeks without access to a lawyer, was among those who appeared in court.) Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric and vice president under Khatami, was nearly unrecognizable as he testified. He looked ragged and lean, some 20 pounds lighter than usual, and without his customary black turban. Khatami, the former president, called the proceeding a "show." Pundits on Farsi Web sites have predicted that these trials may pave the way for charges against more prominent figures, such as presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and possibly even Khatami.

The judgments rendered in these trials will reflect back on Ahmadinejad, and if they are perceived by conservatives as unfair or if the sentences are seen as too harsh, they could further jeopardize Ahmadinejad's position among his own base. The kisses then will be awkward indeed.