Meisam Hosseini/AP/Hayat News Agency
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seen here June 19, said Wednesday that the government won't bow to pressure from demonstrators on the results of the presidential election. The unrest in Iran has raised questions about whether Khamenei will retain his aura and authority once the situation calms down.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seen here June 19, said Wednesday that the government won't bow to pressure from demonstrators on the results of the presidential election. The unrest in Iran has raised questions about whether Khamenei will retain his aura and authority once the situation calms down. Meisam Hosseini/AP/Hayat News Agency
Rumors are swirling of a power struggle unfolding within Iran's ruling elite, amounting to a direct and unprecedented challenge to the authority of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The unrest is raising questions as to whether the supreme leader will remain supreme once the current crisis passes.
Unprecedented Chants At Protests
From the streets of Tehran rose voices that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Amateur video posted on YouTube showed demonstrators throwing rocks and chanting in Farsi, "This coup d'etat government must resign" and "Death to the dictator," an apparent reference to Khamenei.
The chants represent the end of an era, says Abbas Milani, head of the Iran studies program at Stanford University.
"Khamenei has now been defied openly. Khamenei has been called a liar," Milani says. "And the thing that makes this time different is that this time important elements of the establishment are with the people.
"Never before has there been such a breach within the pillars of the establishment."
Milani says he believes Khamenei will never regain the mantle of authority he once had, regardless of the final outcome of the election.
"It used to be said, not long ago, that when the spiritual leader talks, his words are ... end of discussion and everybody folds their hands and accepts what he says," he says. "Not anymore."
Rumors Of Rafsanjani's Strategy
Khamenei has betrayed no sign that he feels his leadership is threatened. He appeared on state television Wednesday, vowing his government will not back down.
"Neither the system nor the people will give in to pressures at any price," he said.
Powerful forces are aligning against Khamenei, however, and not just demonstrators on the streets.
Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says there are reports from the holy city of Qum that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is mounting a campaign to topple the supreme leader.
The reports say "that Rafsanjani has been going to Qum to try to kind of lobby these senior grand ayatollahs within the Assembly of Experts," he says.
The Assembly of Experts chooses and oversees the supreme leader. Its leader: Rafsanjani.
Reliance On Khamenei
Still, even with that kind of clout, Sadjadpour says Rafsanjani is fighting an uphill battle.
"He hasn't been able to assemble a majority yet," Sadjadpour says. "And it's not because these grand ayatollahs necessarily respect Ayatollah Khamenei or have a great affinity for him.
"But they fear the consequences of ... agitating against Khamenei. And they're reliant on Khamenei, economically."
There's another factor working in Khamenei's favor: the loyalty he commands from the country's security forces. Sadjadpour says you underestimate them at your peril.
"I've been to these protests before in Tehran. These guys can be quite terrifying," he says. "I'm talking about kind of the most militant of the Basiji militia — I would describe them as a cross between the Hell's Angels and al-Qaida."
Then again, Stanford's Milani and others say there are reports of splits within Iran's security forces, with some perhaps more loyal to Rafsanjani than to Khamenei.
The state of the security forces, like so much else in Iran, is unclear. Rumors circulate about everything from rifts within the Revolutionary Guard to the size of street protests to power struggles among Iran's powerful mullahs. But the rumors are impossible to verify from the outside.
"We know so little about that country," says Nicholas Burns, the State Department's top negotiator on Iran during the Bush administration. For "30 years (there have been) no businesspeople there — Americans. No journalists there. No diplomats there," he says. "We're peering into a very murky situation."
Burns might have added no spies there or, at least, far too few to make sense of such a complicated country.
U.S. spy agencies are believed to have few reliable assets on the ground to try to pierce the opaqueness of Iranian politics and the factions now believed to be struggling for power.