The leaders of Motalefeh --- which has been a conservative mainstay of the Islamic Republic since its formation --- went further. They asked Ahmadinejad, "Who was the first person to chant, 'Marg bar Velayat-e-Faqih' (Death to Clerical Supremacy)?"
The President said nothing. Asgarowladi and Nabi Habibi continued, "You." In Ahmadinejad's televised debate with Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 campaign, they explained, the President had equated the fate of the Revolution with his own. Ahmadinejad had put himself above everyone, even the Supreme Leader, and the Islamic Republic.
The meeting might seem extraordinary, but it is only one more incident in the battle against the President --- a battle that, at the moment, is not being led by the Greens or the reformists but by conservatives who are disillusioned with the state of Iran and with Ahmadinejad's personal approach to politics.
Since January, we have documented the escalation of that battle, to the point where key conservatives such as Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and 2009 Presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei have been involved in discussions of how to limit or even replace Ahmadinejad, on a daily basis. Defenders of the President, inside and outside Iran, will argue that this is only the normal rough-and-tumble of politics and that the Government as well as the regime is secure.
We're not so sure. From sources inside Iran, we get the picture of rising rather than falling difficulties.
Prices are now increasing, in some cases soaring, across a range of essentials. This week it was reported that electricity bills have risen for some consumers in Tehran by five times. Water has become more expensive. Lamb, which sells for about £10 per kilogramme ($7 per pound) in Britain, is £15 per kilogramme ($10.50 per pound) in Iran, with its lower level of wages.
Sources report that the cultural atmosphere is increasing turning against the "Islamic Revolution". The disappointment and anger is not translating into open political activity. Instead, amidst the repression and sense of crisis, there is a lethargy. Young people are looking to emigrate, and university students are seeking visas to study abroad.
This summer, the rift had opened not only between the President and Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani but also between Ahmadinejad and the head of Iran's judiciary, Sadegh Larijani. In separate meetings with the Supreme Leader, Ali and Sadegh each said that the President was not popular and continued, "Please believe it. Don't support him."
Ayatollah Khamenei insisted, "No, this is not the situation." He told the Larijanis that there must be co-operation and said that he would hold a meeting at the start of Ramadan.
Ali Larijani replied, "My heart is not in it." Khamenei responded, "This is a religious duty."
As we noted in detail at the time, the Supreme Leader did chair that discussion with Ahmadinejad and the two Larijanis, following this with a public speech invoking "unity". A few days later, Ali Larijani and Ahmadinejad gave a public show of reconciliation.
Soon, however, that display broke down. Ahmadinejad's appointment of special envoys for international affairs led to dispute with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who had previously kept quiet over the political tensions, and opened up the space for renewed criticism by the President's opponents in Parliament and the conservative media. The fragile economic situation offered the platform for a gradual renewal of criticism by Ahmadinejad's foes.
And so it was that, only a few weeks after his dramatic intervention and loud proclamation of "unity", the Supreme Leader was once more --- at the behest of his officials and politicians --- having to rebuke Ahmadinejad. This was not only over foreign policy but over the President's economic management, including privatisation and handling of imports.
Is that enough to hold the Government together for some more months? Another story....
Last month Mohsen Rezaei --- former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Secretary of the Expediency Council, 2009 Presidential candidate --- met the Supreme Leader. Rezaei requested, "Please let us carry out the unity plan," by which he meant support of a combination of leading politicians and officials that would curb and possibly put aside Ahmadinejad.
The Supreme Leader asked, "Will this include [opposition figures Mir Hossein] Mousavi and [Mehdi] Karroubi?"
Rezaei paused for a very long moment and then said, "Maybe."
Khamenei was quicker in his response, "No."
So, as our sources summarise, "Iran is in a cul-de-sac." Most of the population is dispirited and apathetic about politics; they see no care for them from the Government, no benefit in the Republic, no use in pursuit of "reform".
Meanwhile, the establishment is increasingly fragmented. Ahmadinejad is in political difficulties, facing heavyweight challenges from the Parliament and possibly from Iran's judiciary, but he can still rely upon the security services and his allies still dominate the Ministry of Intelligence.
Perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Leader still has not pulled the trigger on his President. There have been times when it appeared Ayatollah Khamenei might do so. for example, last summer in the dispute over Ahmadinejad's power play for Iran's ministries and his insistence on keeping Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai, now Chief of Staff, by his side. It appears, however, that Khamenei is still acceptingalbeit without satisfaction and with a great deal of concern --- "the devil he knows" rather than the devil he doesn't. He cannot accept a political coalition which --- without Ahmadinejad --- might have to reach out to reformists and the opposition to bring a semblance of stability.
I suspect Ahmadinejad and his allies not only know that but are playing upon that. For the Supreme Leader's rebukes of his President have not brought the downfall of the controversial Rahim-Mashai. They have not brought a retraction of the President's foreign policy move with his appointment of special envoys, including the same Rahim-Mashai. They have not even brought a shift in Ahmadinejad's economic approach.
This is turning into quite a contest. For at the end of the day --- assuming that the conservatives who dislike the President do not put the white flag --- both the President and the Supreme Leader cannot emerged unbloodied. Either Ahmadinejad must be publicly limited or the weakness of Khamenei's claim of a "velayat-e-faqih", as the Motalefeh leaders foretold in their meeting with the President), will have been exposed.
On to the next round....