Inside the Iranian elite's power struggle

There's an interesting fight simmering inside Iran. Not over support for the nuclear program, which remains just about the only thing Iranians of all ages and ideological persuasions agree on. Nor is it another round in the conflict between the regime and the reformers that kicked into high gear following last year's disputed presidential election, though that one is far from over.

This fight is within the conservative elite -- with interesting implications for the future of President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the balance of power within the establishment. It's a battle for the future of the regime.

The latest sign of strife between hardliners and more moderate conservative factions comes from a dispute over control of the $2 billion set aside for development of Tehran's metro.

The Majlis, Iran's parliament, green lighted funding for the project. Ahmadinejad, anxious over how unfriendly factions within the government might use the money, objected. Iran's Guardian Council, the six jurists and six theologians who make up the country's most influential body, ruled in favor of the Iranian president. But the Expediency Council, the advisory body with the final word on disputes over legislation between the Majlis and Guardian Council, turned the decision back to the Majlis.  

Ahmadinejad then announced he would simply ignore the Expediency Council's ruling. Khamenei refused to take sides directly, but referred the issue back to Ahmadinejad's allies on the Guardian Council.

This fight has been building for quite awhile. The president and parliament have been butting heads for years. In the spring, Ahmadinejad reportedly complained that the Majlis had passed dozens of bills that were "unconstitutional," "un-Islamic," or both. Following the metro dispute, the president has simply refused to recognize the parliament's right to make law, a view that Ali Larijani, the majlis speaker, has diplomatically dismissed as an "odd interpretation" of the country's separation of powers.

What does all this mean? Khamenei damaged his standing as a leader above politics last year by taking sides in the election controversy, and he's looking increasingly irrelevant on fights like this latest one.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad looks to be trying to ensure his own centrality in the regime's future by building his own distinct, domestic political brand -- one that fuses patriotism with intense religious fervor, blurring the lines that (in theory) separate spiritual and political authority.

It's a power grab, and one we better keep an eye on.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?