May 9, 2011 -- Iran's powerful clerics have accused associates of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of witchcraft, including summoning genies, amid an increasingly bitter rift between Ahmadinejad and the country's supreme religious leader.
In recent days, some 25 confidants of Ahmadinejad and his controversial but loyal chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei have been arrested and charged with being "magicians."
One aide, Abbas Ghaffari, was described by conservative Iranian newspaper Ayandeh as "a man with special skills in metaphysics and connections with unknown worlds."
Ghaffari has reportedly been accused of summoning a genie, who caused his interrogator to have a heart attack.
The arrests are the latest window into the growing rift between Ahmadinejad, Iran's elected secular president, and Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the country's appointed religious supreme leader.
They also offer a view on how dynamic religious practice is inside the Islamic Republic. If the clerics hope to smear their opponents with supernatural claims, their plan might backfire, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Iranian Politics Take on Supernatural Component
As clerical dogma loses traction, traditional beliefs that incorporate ideas about a coming messiah, the end of the world, and traditional magic motifs like djinns, or genies, are becoming increasingly popular especially with Ahmadinejad's base.
The president himself has made supernatural claims, telling followers in 2005 that he was surrounded by a halo of light during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which the foreign leaders in the hall were transfixed, unable to blink for a half hour.
The religious establishment has long had its eye on Mashaei, the man behind much of Ahmadinejad's political and religious thinking, because he practices an alternative Messianic --though no less fundamentalist -- version of Islam that includes aspects of the occult and a more limited role for clerics.
Mashei, is Ahmadeinjad's chief of staff and closest advisor. It is widely believed that Ahmadinejad wants Mashaei to succeed him as president.
"Iran has a system with two centers of power, a civilian president and a clerical leader," Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The religious establishment has command of the civilian establishment, but there has always been tension between the poles. Some of that tension is coming out into the open."
Two weeks ago Ahmadinejad fired Abdulhassan Banisadr, accusing the intelligence minister of being a different sort of spy, a mole in his government who fed information to the supreme leader about Mashaei.
Khamenei reinstated the intelligence minister last month, publicly undermining Ahmadinejad and causing the president to sulk for days in his office, avoiding the public and cabinet meetings -- effectively not running the country -- for nearly two weeks.
"What is interesting about the rift is that it's not really about Ahmadinejad, but who will be Ahmadinejad's successor," said Alterman.
"Ahmadinejad is trying to position Mashaei as his successor," he said. "But a significant part of the religious establishment is afraid of Mashaei."
Mashaei is a threat to the clerics for several reasons, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Iran President's Chief of Staff Accused of Black Magic
Mashaei promotes a nationalist, "Iran first" ideology rather than the cleric's "Islam first" dogma, and advocates a religious and political view that marginalizes the clergy. Both ideas are popular with Iran's middle class, further making him a threat, Ghaemi said.
The rift has taken on an increasingly spiritual element. Last month Ahmadinejad loyalists began circulating a DVD documentary anticipating the imminent return of the Hidden Imam Mahdi, a religious event comparable to the way Christians anticipate the second coming of Christ.
While belief in the Mahdi's return is central to Shiite Islam, the Iranian clerical establishment has never predicted a specific time of his arrival.
Ahmadinejad often speaks of the Mahdi's return and his followers note that the president, a man of medium build with black hair and a beard, resembles the mythical leader.
Ahmadinejad has played up and played into his follower's metaphysical religious zeal. Referring to his "halo of light" moment at the U.N., Ahmadinejad says on a widely circulated video in 2005, "I felt the atmosphere changed. All leaders in audience didn't blink for 27, 28 minutes. I'm not exaggerating when I'm saying they didn't blink. Everybody had been astonished ... they had opened their eyes and ears to see what is the message from the Islamic Republic."