TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's internal political battles have reached this point before: Lawmakers demanding that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad become the first Iranian president hauled before parliament for a grilling on government policies.
Each time, Ahmadinejad was given a reprieve by Iran's supreme leader, who apparently wanted to avoid an embarrassing spectacle. But there may be no such easy exit this time for the president.
His ties have frayed badly with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who for months has been trying to put his upstart protege in his place. And the mood is increasingly cutthroat within Iran's leadership as its factions jockey for parliamentary elections fewer than five months away.
"Iran has always been a place of high political theater," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "It's the tone that has gotten more bitter as the stakes have gotten higher."
A scandal surrounding a $2.6 billion bank fraud, the biggest financial abuse case in Iran's history, has given Ahmadinejad's opponents the opportunity to humble the president and his supporters ahead of the parliamentary election. Parliament has begun steps to oust his economy minister, and on Sunday 73 of the 290 lawmakers — just above the required 25 percent threshold — signed a petition to question Ahmadinejad on the investigation.
Ahmadinejad is not directly linked to the corruption investigation and faces no apparent danger of being toppled. And it's still unclear when — or if — he could be ordered to appear in the chamber.
But a possible Watergate-style inquest in parliament — what he knew and when he knew it — would be seen as a crowning moment for his political foes after months of wide-open attacks.
Ahmadinejad is accused by opponents of crossing the ultimate red line in Iran: Trying to expand the powers of the presidency to challenge the near-absolute authority of Khamenei, who heads the ruling theocracy.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies have been arrested or driven off the political map. Ahmadinejad's protege and closest aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has been vilified in state media as leader of a "deviant current" that seeks to compromise the Islamic system.
None of the pressures could have come without approval from Khamenei, who has the final say in all key matters.
In recent months, Khamenei intervened to block several attempts by lawmakers to question Ahmadinejad. The apparent reason was to protect Iran's image and avoid uncomfortable scenes of Ahmadinejad facing angry parliament critics.
But Khamenei could let events take their course this time, some experts say, as his statements suggest a more aggressive stance against perceived threats to the Islamic system.
Earlier this month, Khamenei fired a powerful warning shot at Ahmadinejad — or any successor — seeking to siphon off powers from the ruling clerical establishment, saying that Iran could someday scrap the post of elected president if political needs demand. The supreme leader has also called for "cutting off the traitorous hands" of those implicated in the banking scandal.
The ruling clerics could be thinking ahead to Iran's next big test at the ballot box.
A humbling call into parliament for Ahmadinejad could further embolden his political opponents before parliamentary elections in March. The voting is seen by Khamenei's supporters — including the ultra-powerful Revolutionary Guard — as an important warm up for the presidential contest in June 2013.
The ruling clerics vet all candidates for both races, suggesting the outcome could further strengthen the hold of hard-liners and the Revolutionary Guard, whose reach extends from the military to most key sectors of the economy.
Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a political affairs professor at Tehran's Azad University, said there is a growing sense that Khamenei now may let Ahmadinejad's opponents in parliament take full aim at the president.
"The financial scandal has intensified the mood," he said. "Lawmakers concluded it was time to use their power."
But first, there is the issue of Economy Minister Shamsoddin Hosseini, who could face an impeachment vote in parliament Tuesday.
A parliamentary investigation concluded that Hosseini, his deputies and managers of the Central Bank of Iran and other banks knew about the massive fraud and failed to take action. The scam, allegedly masterminded by a businessman, involved the use of forged documents to obtain credit from at least two Iranian state banks to purchase state-owned companies.
At least 35 suspects have been arrested.
Ahmadinejad still retains significant support among lawmakers, who could try to stall or derail the petition to bring him for questioning. One of the anti-Ahmadinejad lawmakers, Mohammad Dehghan, said there was heavy lobbying Monday by the president's backers to drop the bid, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
A member of the parliament's presiding council, Hossein Sobhaninia, said the lawmakers plan to question a representative of Ahmadinejad before deciding on whether to call the president before the chamber.
"Nothing in Iran comes out of nowhere," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iranian affairs expert at Syracuse University, referring to Khamenei's warning over the presidency post.
"Khamenei seems to be a mind to let this go to parliament this time," he added. "It's one way of further reining in Ahmadinejad after reading him the riot act and letting him know, 'Look, I can hurt you in so many ways.'"
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.