A spat between Iran's premier power broker and its highest political and spiritual authority has come to light just days before a tense presidential election that could shape the course of Iranian society and international relations.
The dispute between Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and supreme leader Ali Khamenei centers on comments made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a debate with his election rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi
, on state television last week, alleging that Rafsanjani was corrupt and had enriched himself in the 30 years since the revolution.
Rafsanjani is now publicly saying that Ahmadinejad is a threat to the entire Islamic Republic who needs to be reined in and quieted down, or else.
"Without a doubt, a part of the public, parties and groups can no longer tolerate the present situation, and the volcanoes inside their burning chests will erupt in society, as exemplified by the gatherings we have seen in streets, squares and universities," he wrote in a letter released Tuesday, according to Iran's Mehr News.
Rafsanjani is no lightweight. He served as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997, fought against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was a confidant of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and remains a pillar of the Islamic Republic's establishment.
He's now chairman of the Expediency Council, which mediates disputes between parliament and the presidency. And making matters more tricky, he also heads the Assembly of Experts, which oversees Khamenei's job.
He was harsh in his letter, comparing Ahmadinejad's behavior to that of the Mujahedin Khalq organization, the Iranian militant opposition group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and regarded as loathsome apostates by Iran.
"Tens of millions of people inside and outside the country witnessed these lies and false assertions that targeted our Islamic system's objects of pride, violation of religion, laws, morals and fair play," he wrote. "Nothing can be worse than questioning decisions of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
He accused Ahmadinejad of causing "billions of dollars" to disappear.
He warned that Ahmadinejad's actions indirectly targeted Khamenei himself and that the president's recklessness was destabilizing the system.
"One expects your eminence, given your position, responsibility and personality, to take effective measures as you see fit to resolve this problem and eliminate dangerous plots, put out the fire, the smoke of which is already visible and prevent its flames from rising and spreading through the elections and beyond," he said in a flurry of apocalyptic imagery likely meant to warn Khamenei of the dangers of an Ahmadinejad victory.
Khamenei has yet to respond to the letter, a move many interpreted as the leader taking Ahmadinejad's side in the dispute.
Photo: Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, left, stands before Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, right, in this 2003 photo. Credit: Hasan Sarbakshian / Associated Press