Rival factions contesting Iran's parliamentary elections next week are breaking longstanding taboos and using once-sacred icons to challenge opponents in a vote that is likely to set the tone for the presidential contest in 2009.
All sides say they revere Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and are devoted to the ideals of its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But who truly carries that revolutionary torch is the focus of vicious debate in which rivals accuse one another of being "enemies" of the regime bent on deliberately destroying it.
Iran's conservative camp, known as "principlists" and including allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is deeply divided but likely to keep its majority in the 290-seat parliament, or majlis, in the March 14 vote. The number of reformist candidates – relative liberals who want to ease social restrictions and end isolation from the West – has been limited, as hard-liners aim to prevent their political comeback.
The discourse shows the profound confidence of Iran's most radical right-wing factions, analysts say. But their unbridled effort to keep hold of every lever of power in Iran is also causing them to break many long-held rules.
"In 29 years, they didn't have the courage to talk this way," says Grand Ayatollah Saanei, a high-ranking cleric, speaking in the religious center of Qom. "But now [hard-liners] have full control and they have no competitors inside or outside Iran."
Regime confidence has also been inadvertently boosted by Washington, which published in December a US National Intelligence Estimate that determined that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003. Suddenly the belief that "war was just around the corner" disappeared, says Iraj Jamshidi, political editor of the reformist Etemaad newspaper in Tehran.
"The conservatives feel a very strong sense of power in themselves, especially after the NIE report …they feel the chance of war against them is gone," says Mr. Jamshidi. "The reality is that the Islamic Republic feels itself at the peak of its power since the revolution, and the foreign threat does not exist anymore."
Indeed, Mr. Ahmadinejad has kept up his anti-West rhetoric, this week dismissing as "worthless" a third round of UN Security Council sanctions for Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. He recently claimed that Iran's nuclear defiance has "brought all big powers to their knees"; and decried opponents in Iran for helping "materialize the plans of the enemies."
"Everybody has understood that Iran is the No. 1 power in the world," the president said last week. "Today the name of Iran means a firm punch in the teeth of the powerful…. Today the message of your revolution is being heard [around the world] and even in the United States itself."
Such confidence is translating into tough political infighting at home, where hard-liners have violated rules laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini himself against the military playing any role in politics, and against criticizing Khomeini's family.
"To follow the path of the Islamic revolution, support for the principlists is necessary, inevitable, and a divine duty of all revolutionary groups," the Revolutionary Guards commander, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said last month.
Those words brought stinging rebuke from across the political spectrum, even from fellow hard-liners such as the editor of the hard-line newspaper Kayhan, who called it a "faulty declaration" that is "against the clear guidelines."
Among reformist critics was the respected grandson of the late leader. "If a soldier wants to enter into politics, he needs to forget the military and the presence of a gun in politics means the end of all dialogue," said Sayed Hassan Khomeini, a mid-ranking cleric in charge of his grandfather's mausoleum, in a rare public comment.
"Those who claim to be loyal to [Khomeini] should be very sensitive to this order, which was directly given by him," Mr. Khomeini said. Noting that the revolution's leader put great store in the vote of the people, he criticized the initial disqualification of some 2,200 reformist candidates (850 of whom have been reinstated) including another Khomeini grandson. "No one can prevent the people from deciding their future," he said.
But the hard-line counterattack was swift and unprecedented. A website close to the president's office went after the Khomeini family itself – a target long off-limits. Under the headline, "The Secret of the Red Cheeks of Sayed Hassam Khomeini," the Nosazi website wrote that Khomeini had received a $75,000 BMW and lived in luxury in north Tehran, where he would "never leave" his steam sauna but "have the luck to see the problems of the poor and needy with [his] red cheeks."
The backlash to that was just as fierce. Fellow conservatives warned that allies of Ahmadinejad had gone too far. Kayhan's influential editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, told the president in print: "Beware of infiltrators and enemies [reformists], but mostly [beware] ignorant friends that are more dangerous ... pretending to support you and your government."
Some argue the real problem is rule by one faction, the conservatives, that leaves little room for dissent. "Different views should go to the parliament, [so] we have a clash of ideas and the best one comes out," says Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's leading dissident cleric and once Khomeini's heir apparent, in an interview in Qom. But hard-liners "want the government and parliament to be all the same, the people to be one with them, and they put others aside…. They weaken the revolution and they weaken Islam."
Iranians often blame the clergy for not fulfilling the promises of the revolution. A common 1979 slogan demanded independence, freedom, and an Islamic republic, with explicit expectations of prosperity and a popular vote.
"The owners of the country are not four or five people. The [authoritarian, pro-West] Shah [toppled in 1979] made the same mistake, now they are making this mistake again," said Mr. Montazeri. "Because people saw the opposite of the promises…all this eventually turned to dust."
As the election nears, the former two-time president Hashemi Rafsanjani warned congregants at Friday prayers in Tehran that some "unnatural" factions "directed from outside of the country" were trying "to create division between [Khomeini] and the people."
Anger over the insults to Khomeini's grandson was blamed for the sudden death of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Tavassoli, the former head of Khomeini's office, who fell dead while making an impassioned speech about it in front of the Expediency Council. The Kargozaran newspaper praised him with the headline: "Defending the Imam until the very last moment." It quoed Mr. Rafsanjani's brother as saying that the ayatollah had died attacking those with "fossilized minds."
"In a democracy, everyone should have a voice, and what is happening to reformists now is not democratic," says Mohammadtaghi Fazel Maybudi, a religious scholar at Mofid University in Qom. "Some of these [hard-liners] are moving against the flow of the world, which is toward democracy."
"At the beginning of the revolution, we went a little too fast, with too many executions, and could have had relations with the US in another way," says Mr. Maybudi. "Now the conservatives are continuing those extremist moves again. I think they will have a negative effect on the nation."
For some clerics, the bitter politicking itself is a betrayal of the revolution.
"The political scene today is becoming polluted with unethical things," says Mohsen Gharavian, a mid-ranking cleric and religious scholar in Qom who studied under a hard-line ayatollah revered by Ahmadinejad. "When a cleric wants to become an MP, he should be ready to have his reputation played with."