On a Tuesday morning a month ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei went to the holy city of Qom to regain some of his legitimacy as the ruler of the Islamic Republic. In many ways it has been a difficult year for the Supreme Leader. Though the security apparatus has managed to preserve his power at the pinnacle of the regime, it has come at a heavy price. The Islamic Republic's claims of justice and democracy ring hollow now more than ever. Khamenei is no longer considered an impartial arbiter between factions in an ever-tightening circle of insiders, which now appears to include only Principlist conservatives. Even this restricted camp is unable to stop feuding despite the Leader's exhortations to maintain unity. And perhaps most importantly, differences between the grand ayatollahs and the regime have bubbled to the surface, imperiling the religious identity of the regime.
And where was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this all-important day? He was in Tehran, welcoming a friend and kindred spirit -- some would say a fellow practitioner of provocative antics on the international stage -- none other than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The contrast between these two events and what they symbolize -- power through religion or populism -- raises fundamental questions about Ahmadinejad and his place within the Islamic Republic. Is he a true believer? Is he a religious fanatic hell-bent on pushing the world towards Armageddon to precipitate the coming of the Mahdi, the Shiite... >>>
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