Recent criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Revolutionary Guards publication Payam-e Enghelab (Message of the Revolution) is in some ways unprecedented. Yet it is also not completely surprising. Ahmadinejad, who has been opposed by the reformists and the pragmatic conservatives, is increasingly viewed as a divisive figure even within the principlist (fundamentalist) camp. And it appears that his support base within the Guards is no longer assured.
More importantly, the criticism highlights two key, but possibly incompatible, trends in Iranian politics: the growing role of the Guards as the Islamic Republic's ultimate powerbroker and the deep and dangerous divisions within the political system, including within the Guards.
Ahmadinejad has come under a lot of criticism from the principlist camp in recent months. His re-election, which entailed purging the reformists and pragmatic conservatives from the political system, is nevertheless seen by some principlists as weakening the system in the long run by re-defining the rules of Iranian politics.
Ahmadinejad's attempt to purge political opponents has not been limited to key figures such as former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and former President Mohammad Khatami. He has also targeted principlists such as Ali Larijani, current speaker of the Majles and trusted advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad's claim that the executive branch supersedes the legislature is viewed as an attempt to sidestep principlist figures who pose a threat to his authority.
The Islamic Republic, though hardly a liberal democracy, has been traditionally defined by a system of checks and balances that includes institutional and factional competition. It is one thing to sidestep reformists who constitute a threat to the "ideals" of the Islamic Republic. But marginalization of a respected fundamentalist and former Guards members such as Larijani is an entirely different matter.
The protection of the regime's ideals, and indeed its very existence, has fallen to the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards ensured the principlist domination of the political system through its support of Ahmadinejad in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections, with Khamenei's approval. But the force is also demonstrating that it is willing and able to rein him in, especially if he threatens regime interests.
Ahmadienjad's attempt to monopolize government authority is one reason airing criticism in public. Another is his poor economic and foreign policy performance. The effects of U.S. and U.N. sanctions on the Iranian economy appear to have raised the ire of important Guards figures.
For the Revolutionary Guards, a policy of "resistance" against the United States is ideal even if it entails costs, but it has to produce tangible benefits for the regime's military elite. The U.N. sanctions and Iran's loss of support from key partners such as Russia have been interpreted as failures not mitigated by Ahmadinejad's "triumphant" recent tour of southern Lebanon.
The Guards may have become Iran's most powerful economic and political actor, but the force also appears to be dangerously divided. Some members support Ahmadinejad; others support Mousavi or principlist politicians, such as Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
Indeed, the regime's greatest source of weakness is not Ahmadinejad. Its main vulnerability is its inability to achieve consensus and act decisively. As a result, the Guards' role as interpreter and enforcer of the regime's interests may be secure for now, but it is hardly guaranteed.
Alireza Nader is an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.