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Iran's unpredictable president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is nearing the end of his final term in office and he has apparently decided to go out with a bang. The president has dragged a long-simmering feud with one of Iran's most powerful political families out into the open. It features hidden camera videos and allegations of corruption and it has prompted an urgent call for calm from the country's supreme leader. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul on what looks to be an unexpectedly lively campaign season in Iran.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It's a story with many strands, but it's largely a battle between two powerful men - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a populist firebrand who has fallen out of favor with his former backers, and parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a respected religious lawmaker who wants the president's job. Ahmadinejad showed up in parliament recently just as it was poised to impeach one of his cabinet ministers. The president shocked lawmakers by producing a secret video that appears to show one of Speaker Larijani's brothers attempting to use his family's position to enrich himself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)
KENYON: Ahmandinejad read from what he said was a transcript of the tape in which Fazel Larijani promised access to his powerful brother Ali in exchange for a cut of the proceeds in a privatization program. Mocking the shouts of stunned lawmakers, Ahmandinejad said, we have the voice, the videos, everything. If the speaker agrees, we can give you 24, 25 hours of this, whatever you want.
But Speaker Larijani did not agree. Instead, he ordered the president to sit down and be quiet and proceeded with a withering counterattack.
ALI LARIJANI: (Speaking foreign language)
KENYON: Calling Ahmandinejad's behavior Mafia-like, Larijani said, you keep referring to my brother. I have nothing to do with him. Adding that: this is our country's problem, our president doesn't abide by even the most basic standards of morality. In fact, Larijani has several brothers. One is the head of the judiciary. And between them, there is no love lost for Ahmandinejad or the other man in the secret video, presidential ally Saheed Mortazavi.
Mortazavi is a former enforcer for the regime who has been implicated in the 2009 deaths of three political prisoners After the dust-up in parliament, the prosecutor's office announced that both Mortazavi and Fazel Larijani had been summoned, interrogated and released. Iranians who had been expecting a quiet presidential campaign were suddenly avid consumers of political news again. Unconfirmed reports of more corruption videos emerged and wealthy businessmen used to operating behind the scenes found their names and pictures suddenly showing up online. Analysts say it's hard to say where the political fallout will land, but if Ali Larijani hopes to make another run for president this June - he lost in 2005 and was forced out of the race in 2009 - the recent publicity won't do him any good.
Farideh Farhi, at the University of Hawaii, says Ahmandinejad has few friends these days but seems more than willing to do what damage he can on his way out of office.
FARIDEH FARHI: He has antagonized almost every single political constituency that he used to have. You know, his philosophy is that the best defense is offense. He has made the decision to not go down without fighting.
KENYON: Few believe this battle among conservatives will open the door to pro-reform candidates. If anything, says Iranian history professor Ali Ansari at St. Andrews University in Scotland, the June election is unlikely to resemble anything Western voters would recognize as free and fair.
ALI ANSARI: I think what we're going to see is something akin to the last year's parliamentary elections, which were wholly theatrical, really, in structure. They told us what the turnout was going to be some three months before it actually took place, and I think that's the model you're going to see this time.
KENYON: Ansari says restoring calm is paramount for Ayatollah Khamenei, but that won't be easy if Ahmandinejad refuses to leave the stage quietly.
ANSARI: He's threatened these sort of leaks for some time and I think we can expect, for the next few months certainly, to see either himself or his supporters will begin to release material that is going to be quite embarrassing to members of the elite. So from Khamenei's point of view, he would really like to stamp down on this very quickly, but, of course, we have to wait and see how far he can do it in the next few months.
KENYON: The supreme leader has promised to speak out again on the political situation. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.