Of all the series of unexpected, transformative, events unfolding in the Middle East, one of the most astonishing dramas is transpiring in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is about to lose power. No, the pro-democracy forces have not suddenly reawakened to overthrow Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs.
Instead, the same Shiite clerics who so forcefully supported the president against mass opposition protesters two years ago have now turned decisively and very publicly against Ahmadinejad.
The political intrigue and high-level battles continue, but for practical purposes Ahmadinejad has already become a spent force.
On the surface, this may sound like good news for the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Iranians, who took to the streets in 2009, accusing the president and the Islamic Republic's ruling regime of stealing the presidential election. It may also sound like good news for the West after years of unsuccessfully pushing back against Iran's illegal nuclear program.
Unfortunately, the still-raging battle between Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs pits hardliners against harderliners. The advocates of true democratic reform are mere spectators in this bout, though they have reason to hope the contenders will bludgeon each other enough that the entire regime will ultimately collapse.
In this battle between bad and worse, Ahmadinejad represents the lesser of two pernicious evils. And Ahmadinejad's enemies, who stand with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will surely win.
In the immediate aftermath of the political clash, Iran will emerge a less open, less conciliatory nation, one that will not yield to the democratic aspirations of its people, much less to Western demands to an end of uranium enrichment.
Still, the fractures at the top point to deep cracks in the regime that has tried to blend Islamic rule ( Velayat-e-Faqih) with elements of democracy. Ahmadinejad stands as the supposed choice of the people. The ayatollahs, the "signs of God," have the last word in a dispute between the president, the supposed choice of the people, and the unelected Supreme Leader. The regime's pretense of democracy is peeling away.
The Supreme Leader had forcefully backed Ahmadinejad when his rule seemed threatened by the so-called Green movement. But in recent months, Khamenei and his clerical backers detected that the president and his inner circle, particularly his most trusted advisor, Chief of Staff Esfandar Rahim Mashaei, sought to steer the country in a different direction, raising the prominence of Iran's national roots relative to that of its Islamic character. The burst of nationalism looked like a serious threat to the clerics' power.
The pro-Khamenei, mullah-filled parliament, lashed out against the president and Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son. Khamenei's backers have flung bizarre accusations against Mashaei, calling him a corrupt and ambitious sorcerer, a voodoo practitioner who has Ahmadinejad under his spell.
The parliament has already removed several of the president's most important cabinet appointments, and authorities have arrested at least a dozen of Ahmadinejad's allies. Some of them have reportedly "confessed" to crimes.
Ahmadinejad's efforts to soothe the rift have fallen flat. When he described his relationship with Khamenei as that between a father and his son, an aide to the Supreme Leader scoffed at his audacity, saying the correct analogy is a relationship between a saint and his follower.
Members of parliament have made moves to impeach Ahmadinejad, but they may back down on that effort because removing Ahmadinejad would reflect badly on the country. The president says he will not remove Mashaei, and he wants to continue fighting. But Khamenei has already clipped his former protege's wings. At most, he may let him stay in office for the sake of appearances.
In the meantime, the brutal repression of pro-democracy advocates continues. Iran had the world's second highest rate of executions in 2010, second only to China, cracking down even harder this year with a "worrying upsurge" in public hangings, according to Amnesty International.
And the weapons program continues unabated. British Foreign Secretary William Hague just told his parliament that Iran has been conducting secret launches of missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads.
Elsewhere in the Middle East popular revolutions have challenged powerful but unified dictatorships. In Iran, the dictatorship is fighting against itself: against Ahmadinejad, a president the mullahs put in office. When the fighting ends, the hardest of Iran's hardliners will almost certainly emerge victorious, but the regime — and its claim to popular legitimacy — will look battered and vulnerable.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.