A great deal of attention has recently been lavished on Iran’s nuclear ambition. Framed in terms familiar to those hardened hawks of a bygone Cold War, the drums of war in Southwest Asia have revived talk of that old “sum of all fears.”

But behind the scenes in Tehran, battle lines have already been drawn in this increasingly isolated and fractious body politic.  The recent parliamentary elections – though largely overlooked and critically under-analyzed – signaled a turning point in a simmering power struggle that will shake the foundations of Khomeini’s Revolutionary Republic.

It’s time to pay attention to the men behind the curtain.

Weeks have passed since the first round of elections was held to determine the parliamentary profile of the Iranian Majilis. The assumption has been that regardless of the outcome, Iran’s 48 million voters wouldn’t have much say in the matter – theirs is simply a choice between largely immaterial bearded faces slotted to occupy hollow seats in the new Parliament.

Yet these recent elections were of great significance, serving as a critical referendum on a growing rift between Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s hardliners, conservatives and clerics alike, hold certain truths self-evident. Social conservatism in accordance with the Ja’fari school of Sharia law is fundamental, and presumes the segregation of the sexes, mandated veiling and other strict observances – imposed and enforced by the state – in adherence with traditional Islamic values. By and large, conservatives favor strict state control of the nation’s divinely apportioned oil wealth. Despite the providence of petroleum, both the clerical and uniformed classes eschew the trappings of wealth. For his part, Ahmadinejad famously drove his Carter-era Puegeot to the presidency, in a studied rejection of decadent Western materialism. The conservative credo of anti-Western, anti-Israeli sentiment has won great acclaim among the lower classes, lower clerics, security services and bazaari merchant caste.

But most importantly, the hardliners in Iran have celebrated Ayatollah Khomeini’s welayat-faqih custodianship over the Iranian people. This Shi’a specific, post-“Age of Mehdi Occultation” theory is unique to Iran, and presumes “guardianship” of Islamic jurisprudence is represented by a “supreme” clerical leader. This doyen is to be supported by his devotional lieutenants in other critical realms of governance – most notably the Assembly of Experts (all must boast clerical bona fides), the Council of Guardians (of whom, half must be ordained), the courts and state-appointed leaders of Friday prayers.

This basic tenet is recognized as the foundational standard of Iran’s supposed theocracy, and the true path for the Islamic Republic. Yet recent events suggest this clerical supremacy has been challenged by some who initially mobilized the revolutionary fervor – President Ahmadinejad included.

From the ashes of the Green Revolution, in February 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed that the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had acquired sufficient power to displace the government.

“We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. That is our view.”

Established in 1979 specifically to protect the rule of welayat faqih and the Supreme Leader from attacks outside and within Iran, the IRGC has entwined its interests with the state economy. It now controls major domestic industry and enterprise. Its commercial wing presides over construction, oil exports, petroleum imports, defense contracts and transportation infrastructure. Of the 18 current cabinet ministers, 12 are former members of the IRGC or their basij paramilitary.

The IRGC’s international entanglement is similarly extended. In addition to military clients in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the former head of the Guard’s engineering division, Rostam Ghasemi, was named Iran’s oil minister in 2011, and subsequently elevated to the presidency of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Secretary Clinton was correct to recognize the growing power of the IRGC, but she misapprehended their designs on the country. Rather than supplanting the Supreme Leader, it appears they have further entrenched themselves as his faithful Praetorians – at the expense of Iran’s Islamic “legitimacy” and the office of the president.

Since 2009’s elections, there’s been a presumption that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marched in political lock-step. By now, we should know this is not the case. In Tehran, the past year has been shadowed by growing tensions between the president and the Supreme Leader. The electoral majority secured in the first round of recent parliamentary elections suggests that the people have cast their lot with the Divine – supporting the shifting alliance of Khamenei-IRGC backed candidates among the Conservatives, Principlists and Ultraconservatives – in repudiation of Ahmadinejad’s political influence.

Rumors are again rife that Ahmadenjad – whose faction lost significant ground to Khamenei’s loyalists in this most recent round of elections – may now be close to resigning. Or, closer still, to arching back against political rivals. How did it come to this?

These latest elections may prove more damaging to stability in the Islamic Republic than Mir Hossein Moussavi’s ill-fated hopes at the ballot in 2009. Since Ahmadinejad attempted to sack Iran’s intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi, last April, the president’s maneuvers have been closely watched by the nation’s political elite. To make matters worse, Ahmadinejad made the insulting assertion that he’s worked in express communion with the Hidden Twelfth Iman – a scriptural partnership strictly reserved for the Supreme Leader. Whether speaking from the arrogance of power or the misplaced assumptions that the clergy can’t touch him, Amhedinejad has clearly and critically fractured the Iranian hard-liners between those who support his presidency and those who side with the Supreme Leader and his confederates in the IRGC.

Since this time last year, Khamenei has hinted at removing the presidency, overturned two Ahmadinejad cabinet appointments, and summoned parliamentary censure of his economic “mismanagement.” Such public criticism is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic – and accusations of negligence sound strangely like scapegoating, given the disastrous sanctions applied on Iran.

For his part, Khamenei has been stuck in a dicey posture since he was abruptly appointed “Grand Ayatollah,” mere hours after Khomeini’s death. Clerical peers glanced askance at his comparatively shallow Islamic erudition, and he soon found himself in search of more dependable allies. At that time, he was clever enough to ally himself to friendly factions in the IRGC and their brownshirts in the basij militia.

Since his elevation to Supreme Leader, analysts have suggested he’s become increasingly more indebted to those sleeping in the barracks than praying in the mosques.

But if he’s counting on support from the military, he does so on a knife’s edge. The IRGC’s multi-billion dollar interests in the Iranian “brand” are increasingly threatened by economic sanctions and political isolation. Although Khamenei has outmaneuvered his political rivals in the ranks of reformers and supporters of presidential federalism, it is unlikely he will be able to slip past debts owed his personal Praetorians. As conservatives and traditionalists battle for power behind the scenes, Khamenei’s is losing his grip on factional consensus about the fundamental meaning and structure of an Islamic Republic.

All this comes at a sensitive moment when words of war have reached a crescendo. Regardless of who should emerge from the fray between political conservatives in the Islamic Republic, it is unlikely that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will evaporate.  Membership in the world’s nuclear powers translates into too much international currency for any party to ignore.

Of course the IAEA recently announced a deal to widen  inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities for the first time since 2007. News of the agreement was announced days ahead of a second round of talks to be held in Baghdad between an increasingly isolated Iran, and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. The goal of the negotiations likely hinges on an Iranian agreement to shutter its higher-grade uranium plant at Fordow – the enrichment facility is located underground, and would prove largely impervious to an air assault.

In the wake of Ahmadinejad’s fall from grace, and Khamenei’s growing dependence on his military backing, some analysts have suggested that Western powers circumvent the Supreme Leader and engage the IRGC, directly.

This task will prove impossible, at present. The Supreme Leader tapped one Saeed Jalili  as his personal emissary and chief negotiator. He’s a hardline ideologue – one of the true believers in the guardianship of Islamic jurists. His doctoral thesis in political science actually considered how the Prophet Muhammad’s seventh century teachings might be applied to present day international affairs. According to Richard Cohen of The New York Times, Jalili was a “chief architect” of 2009’s post-election crackdown. He’s also a veteran of the IRGC who left half his right leg on the front-lines in the war against Iraq.

Despite skepticism that Iran’s agreement with the IAEA is simply a strategy to gain leverage going into the Baghdad negotiations with Tehran’s intractable emissary, political fractures within the Islamic Republic are very real.

However, if Western powers hold any hope that war to diminish (not demolish) Iran’s nuclear infrastructure can be avoided it will be necessary to target these human-fault lines. The imposition of real, fiscal cost on the IRGC might compel them to negotiate with the United States, directly, behind Khamenei’s back.

Of course, nothing cements support for a regime like the call to arms – particularly under the immediate threat of foreign ordnance. Until that time, let’s remember that the isolation and fracture of Iranian leadership may prove our best bet for buying ourselves a little more time.