Esfandiar Rahim Mashai

Iranian hardliners have targeted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s closest aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, with fierce criticism as the struggle intensifies over who will shape the next government.

The weekly Ya Lesarat Al-Hossein quotes a student of Ahmadinejad’s mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, as saying: “Mashai is a freemason and should be arrested.”

He adds that the contents of the president’s public speeches prove he has been heavily influenced by Mashai’s ideas.

At the same time, the head the conservative Society of Islamic Republic Martyrs, Hossein Fadai, accused the “deviant current” in the government of trying to foster relations with the U.S. and foreign intelligence services.

Mashai, whom the conservatives regard as the leader of the so-called deviant current, has been criticized for his glorification of pre-Islamic Iran, and many of his loyalists have been arrested in recent weeks.

The attacks against Mashai have surged since Ahmadinejad’s mentor in the clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, said the president has been acting “unnaturally” and the only explanation is that “he is bewitched.”

There has always been resistance to Mashai among the clergy. However, it escalated when Ahmadinejad tried to dismiss his Minister of Intelligence, but was forced by the Supreme Leader to reinstate him.

Experts say tensions are rising as two factions try to influence the outcome of the coming parliamentary elections in 2012.