An incident with one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides shows the growing split between and Iran’s powerful appointed clerics. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iranian security forces tried to arrest a senior adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday, witnesses said, firing tear gas into the offices of the newspaper that the aide runs and retreating only after a phone call from Ahmadinejad.

The incident illustrates the growing split between Ahmadinejad, who is an elected leader, and the appointed group of Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders who are trying to curb his power.

Ahmadinejad’s government runs day-to-day politics, while the clerics have power over the judiciary and the security forces, enjoy close access to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and wield enormous influence behind the scenes.

With key parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2, Ahmadinejad — once considered a political lame duck — has been aggressively mobilizing political forces across the country, accusing the clerics of widespread corruption and demanding full implementation of “citizenship rights.”

“Ahmadinejad has shown that a poor man can be president in this country,” said the aide, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, shortly before security forces stormed the newspaper building to arrest him. “But, of course, some want to destroy this idea.”

Javanfekr, who is part of Ahmadinejad’s inner circle of advisers, heads the Iran newspaper and the state-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency, the country’s most prominent news organization. The agency and the newspaper act as mouthpieces for Ahmadinejad’s government.

In an interview published Saturday in the independent Etemaad newspaper, Javanfekr accused his opponents of abandoning the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution. He blasted the clerics and ridiculed their characterization of Ahmadinejad and his followers as a “deviant current” out to undermine the power of the clerics.

“Yes, we are deviant,” Javanfekr told Etemaad. “We are deviated from these kinds of friends, from their thoughts and behavior.”

Only hours after the interview was published, Iran’s judiciary ordered that the newspaper be shut down.

On Sunday, Javanfekr was sentenced to one year in prison and was banned for three years from journalistic activities for writing an article that questioned the requirement that all Iranian women wear head scarves, another bone of contention between Ahmadinejad and the clerics. Javanfekr has 20 days to file an appeal.

At a news conference in his newsroom Monday, Javanfekr called publicly for reform, brushing aside warnings not to speak out. Javanfekr said Ahmadinejad fully supports Khamenei, but he charged that many clerics close to Khamenei are abusing their power.

“We should all be able to say our criticisms,” Javanfekr said. “There should not be an atmosphere of strangulation in this country.”

A little later, security forces moved in, apparently to arrest Javanfekr, according to journalists who were present. Police fired tear gas inside the newsroom and used electronic batons as they moved up the stairs, injuring political editor Ali Reza Soltani, said a member of the newspaper’s security team.

The guard said Javanfekr was resisting arrest, aided by his journalistic colleagues and the newspaper guards, when the phone call from Ahmadinejad came and the security forces withdrew.

In total, 33 people working for the paper were arrested, the guard said.  

Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported that Javanfekr was handcuffed for more than an hour. He later was seen talking to reporters, with bruises on his face, while security forces waited in the distance.

“There was no need for such measures,” Javanfekr said, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency. “If they summon me, I come myself.”