Iran's supreme leader publicly rebuked the president over his removal of a top official, a rare show of discontent with the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the country's most powerful figure.
The rebuke, issued in the press Monday, quickly raised questions whether the supreme leader is backing off support of Ahmadinejad in the president's tough battle for a second term in June 12 elections.
The flap was over control of a body that organizes the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which traditionally comes under Khamenei's vast powers. The supreme leader overturned the government's removal of the head of the organization.
The dispute may appear like a minor turf battle. But some observers saw it as a sign of Khamenei distancing himself from Ahmadinejad, whose popularity has fallen among some Iranians because of the ailing economy. His critics also accuse him of hurting Iran with comments denying the Holocaust and by taking a tough stance over Iran's nuclear program.
Political analyst Saeed Leilaz called the rebuke "unprecedented" and said it "clearly means that Khamenei doesn't insist that Ahmadinejad deserves to remain as president. That's the message."
Strong challenge from reformists
Ahmadinejad faces a strong challenge in the elections from reformists, who call for greater freedoms at home and better relations with the West. At the same time, Ahmadinejad has a challenger from within his conservative camp, former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei.
Leilaz said Rezaei would have never entered the race without consultation with Khamenei first. His candidacy is "another indication that Khamenei is keeping his options open to deal with a president different from Ahmadinejad," he said. Notably, the largest conservative political faction, Jame-e-Rouhaniat-e-Mobarez, has not endorsed Ahmadinejad in the elections, saying it would have no preferred choice.
Still, given Iran's notoriously murky politics, it is hard to gauge where Khamenei stands. The supreme leader has overruled Ahmadinejad at times in the past, only to later reaffirm his strong support for the president. In elections, he never publicly endorses any candidate.
The dispute began last month when Ahmadinejad's government put the hajj committee under Iran's tourism authority. One of Ahmadinejad's vice presidents then dismissed the hajj organization chief, Mostafa Khaksar Qahroudi, and installed a replacement.
That brought a protest from the supreme leader's representative on hajj affairs, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Reishahri, who called the government's move illegal.
Khamenei issued a statement backing his representative and ordering Qahroudi be restored.
"Regarding the replacement in the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, the president was strongly notified that the annexation of this organization to the tourism committee is not appropriate," the government daily "Iran" quoted Khamenei as saying. He ordered that the "situation remain as it was before."
Perhaps more humiliating was that Khamenei addressed Reishahri and not the president in the notification.
Not the first rebuke
Ahmadinejad's government had repeatedly defended the replacement, saying the move was legal. But after Khamenei's statement, it quickly backed down. "Upon learning the exalted leader's view, the replacement was nullified ... the government doesn't consider legitimate any decision contrary to his (Khamenei's) view," government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham was quoted in newspapers as saying Monday.
Also Monday, the state news agency IRNA reported that Ahmadinejad canceled a planned trip to Latin America that would have taken him to Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador. Instead, Ahmadinejad will go closer to home, visiting Syria on Tuesday.
IRNA gave no reason for the cancellation, and there was no immediate indication it was connected to the flap with Khamenei. The president also canceled a live TV interview Monday due to "heavy workload," his official Web site said.
Ahmadinejad is facing two tough challengers from the reformist camp: former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mahdi Karroubi. Reformists, who were thrown out of power with Ahmadinejad's 2005 election, see a realistic chance for a comeback in next month's vote.
The dispute over the committee was not the first rebuke from Khamenei to Ahmadinejad. In January 2008, Khamenei reversed a decision by the president and ordered him to implement a law supplying natural gas to remote villages. The order was seen as a stinging blow to Ahmadinejad, who was facing deep public anger over fuel shortages during a particularly cold winter.
Yet months later, Khamenei was unusually vocal in his backing for Ahmadinejad, calling him a brave leader who has stood up to the West over Iran's nuclear activities and praising his general performance.
He also said Ahmadinejad should run his government as if he would eventually serve a second term. Some saw that as Khamenei clearly backing his re-election, but others believed Khamenei was just intended to make sure the government worked hard until the last day in office.