Michael Purcell: Ahmadinejad puts himself in danger

With Iran's reformists ruthlessly suppressed, the country's ruling hardliners have turned on each other in a furious power struggle that has left president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a perilous position.

Some Iran experts believe he could be ousted before his second-term expires in mid-2013 as a growing number of his conservative opponents in parliament are threatening to impeach him.

Ahmadinejad crossed a red line last month when he publicly challenged the all-encompassing authority of Iran's supreme leader and his one-time champion, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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The crisis erupted when the president tried to force the resignation of the influential intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi. Eyeing next year's parliamentary elections, Ahmadinejad wanted the ministry in the hands of more trusted cronies because it is in charge of checking the background of candidates.

When Khamenei publicly ordered the president to reinstate Moslehi, Ahmadinejad went into a defiant sulk and boycotted his official duties for nearly two weeks before he finally ate humble pie and accepted that the spy chief would stay.

Ahmadinejad proclaimed his loyalty to Khamenei in an interview on state TV on Sunday night. He hailed the ayatollah as a loving and just father, both to himself and the nation.

But in the same interview, the irrepressible Ahmadinejad set the ground for a new contest of wills with the supreme leader. The president announced that he has appointed himself caretaker of the vital oil ministry - which Khamenei sees as his domain.

If it comes to the crunch, however, the septuagenarian Khamenei is far more likely to land a knock-out blow against the younger president - and in an early round.

The ayatollah has the support of parliament's conservative majority, much of the clerical establishment, and the immensely powerful Revolutionary Guards.

The president's Achilles heel is his unswerving support for his controversial chief-of-staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son. The president is widely seen to be grooming him as his successor to prolong his own political life beyond 2013. But Mashaie is the bte-noir of the president's hardline opponents because he champions Iran's pre-Islamic past and has expressed liberal views on the strict dress code.

Ahmadinejad's one-time spiritual mentor, the ultra-hardline ayatollah, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, said on Sunday there was only one way to explain the president's otherwise inexplicable attachment to his chief-of-staff: Mashaei must have cast a "spell" on him. Bizarre as that sounds, some of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei's close advisers were arrested earlier this month for dabbling in "sorcery", following accusations that they used occult powers to bolster the president's position.