It has been a difficult few months in Iranian politics. Only days after being refused access by the Iranian judiciary to an imprisoned press aide, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released a public letter accusing Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, of protecting high government officials—including Larijani’s older brother Sadeq, the Prime Minister—from persecution for corruption. The aide, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was an official for the government’s Islamic Republic News Agency and had been jailed for insulting Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. In a humiliating rebuke to presidential power, Larijani had refused Ahmadinejad’s attempted visit on the grounds that it would not be in the interests of the country. The bickering between government branches suggests that Ahmadinejad’s power may be waning as he approaches the end of his second and final term, but also provides a telling glimpse at growing instability within the regime. The feud prompted Khamenei, who rarely weighs in on day-to-day political matters, to openly declare all political infighting tantamount to treason.

Perhaps the most important undercurrent to the political turmoil is the rapid deterioration of the Iranian economy. In face of heightened international sanctions over its nuclear program, Iran has struggled to stay fiscally afloat. As the value of its currency plummets—a total of 80 percent in the past year—and surpluses dry up, panic over the economy has begun to translate into political fractures. Although the leadership in all branches of the government has consistently implored the public to remain unified in their support, politicians have begun to point fingers at one another. Moreover, while Ahmadinejad may suffer some of the immediate blame for mismanaging the situation so far, the fallout is unlikely to end with him. The recent bickering marks the first signs of the sanctions erupting publicly into the political sphere, and depending on how the Iranian economy develops, it seems likely that the regime will continue to fracture regardless of what Khamenei declares treasonous.

Although both the president and the parliament are popularly elected, the Iranian political system is ultimately centered on the will of the Supreme Leader. A council of jurists and Islamic experts vets candidates for most offices, some political parties are banned, and Khamenei has the final say on any issue. Although Khamenei wields tremendous influence at every level of government, he, like his predecessor, has traditionally shied away from formally aligning himself with candidates. During the 2009 presidential election, however, when hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in Tehran to dispute Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory, Khamenei sided firmly with Ahmadinejad and violently suppressed the uprising.

However, since then, Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad has waned, matching a growing wave of disapproval from members of parliament. The political gravity wielded by the Larijani brothers, allied with Shiite clerics and military commanders who fear that Ahmadinejad is working to curb their influence, makes for a powerful opposition to the president.

Javanfekr was only one of dozens of Ahmadinejad’s allies detained in the last year. The Iranian Parliament has repeatedly called for the interrogation of cabinet ministers and very recently passed a motion to summon Ahmadinejad himself. The president has responded to mounting criticisms with an emphasis on his role as Iran’s highest elected leader. When he was attempting to visit Javanfekr in prison, he even made a direct appeal to the Iranian constitution, claiming that he requires no permission or agreement from the judiciary in exercising his presidential rights and duties. Since Khamenei’s condemnation, both Ahmadinejad and the Larijani have temporarily stepped back from their jabs at one another. Khamenei has reappointed an official spokesman for the government in what appears to be a move to put forth a more unified front. Nevertheless, the whole incident constitutes an unusually public display of the tensions and maneuvering within the regime.

Infighting is not uncommon in a struggling democracy, even one that is functionally negated by an unelected supreme leader. Iran’s polity has long suffered from factional give-and-take, and the current subordinates to Khamenei are still just politicians jockeying for power. Indeed, Ahmedinejad seems interested in continuing his political influence after he steps down from office next June, and Larijani, once a presidential candidate in 2005, may well run again to fill his vacancy. But with the economy crumbling and the government coffers emptying, the outburst of political tensions may reflect wider developments.

A recent petition to the labor min- ister signed by 10,000 Iranian workers complained of declines in purchasing power. When the currency halved itself in just one week in early October, protests broke out in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and currency exchange district. These, like previous signs of social unrest and like the recent political infighting, were met with a quick and decisive government response that— precisely for its seriousness—betrays the regime’s insecurity and the promises some measure of change going forward.