TEHRAN -- In his clearest warning that political infighting by his subordinates must end, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Wednesday that their public disputes would be treated as treason.
Complaining that the increasingly open public fights between the executive branch of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and high-ranking officials in the legislative and judicial branches were providing ammunition to "foreign media and enemies," the ayatollah -- who has the last word on Iran's affairs of state -- set the clearest red line ever to those running the country's day-to-day matters.
"I warn the heads of the three branches to mind their own business," Ayatollah Khamenei said, according to Iranian media accounts. He stressed that "from now on," until presidential elections scheduled for June, those "exploiting emotions of the people" would be guilty of "committing treason against the country."
The warning sets up the ayatollah to intervene in the continuous bickering that has pitted Mr. Ahmadinejad against the alliance of Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, and his brother, Ali Larijani, the Parliament speaker.
The most recent public fight, in which Sadegh Larijani last week blocked Mr. Ahmadinejad from visiting the president's arrested aide in Tehran's Evin prison, is the tip of a much wider dispute, reflected in speeches and bitter letters that have been made public.
The Larijani brothers are backed by leading Shiite Muslim clerics who fear that Mr. Ahmadinejad is working to curb their influence. In turn, the president, whose 2009 disputed re-election led to unprecedented street protests by the mostly urbanized middle class, is increasingly portraying himself as a defender of human rights.
In what appeared to be a move aimed at reducing the potential for more public spats, the government Wednesday announced reappointment of Gholam Hossein Elham as its official spokesman. The appointment could keep Mr. Ahmadinejad away from the limelight for some time to come, and the spokesman will act as a shock absorber for criticism against the government and president, analysts said.
"This is crisis management from our supreme leader," said analyst Amir Mohebbian, whose reports are sometimes published on Ayatollah Khamenei's personal website. "If they don't listen, he may start legal procedures against them."
The ayatollah's blunt warning differs from his past tendency to avoid increased pressure on Mr. Ahmadinejad. Whenever parliamentarians had tried to inflict damage on the president, they would retreat at the last moment, hinting that the supreme leader had asked them to back down.
Iranian news accounts of Ayatollah Khamenei's warning said he issued it during a meeting with high school students, a few days before the commemoration of the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy hostage-taking in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Because of a leap year in the Iranian calendar and an Islamic holiday, the event's official commemoration will be Friday.
Despite rumors of behind-the-scenes talks between Iranian and U.S. officials, Iran's leader said that during the "long fight between the Iranian nation and America," only Iranian resistance had succeeded.