The Supreme Leader's Gamble: Iran's Crisis Deepens

Iran's political crisis is no longer only about the disputed presidential election. In taking an unyielding stand behind the results of the contested vote, Iran's supreme leader put his own position and powers on the line too.

The unusual speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Friday prayers was the most important in his 20 years in power. It was also a huge gamble. By endorsing President Ahmadinejad's relection, rejecting compromise with the opposition, and condemning the protests, he has now set the stage for an even bigger confrontation.

The test of whether the opposition that has galvanized around former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi has real legs will now be determined by whether it defies Khamenei's authority this weekend and turns out in the same stunning numbers it did during the first week of Iran's crisis.

If they do, the focus will now be a challenge to the supreme leader as much as of the questionable election results. Whether Ahmadinejad really won a landslide over the widely popular Mousavi becomes almost a secondary issue.

The crisis has been building in that direction all week. The undercurrent of the defiant protests, which have now spread to cities across Iran, have increasingly become a rebuff of Khamenei.

In Iran's unique blend of religion and state, Khamenei is effectively an infallible political pope. The position was originally designed to be the sage providing oversight on government leaders and guidance in blending the laws of man and God. But over the past three decades, the velayet-e faqih, or rule of the jurist, has steadily become more authoritative about all functions of state, the judiciary and the military -- and more authoritarian. His word is, literally, final.

His message Friday was that he is willing to condone whatever it takes to end the turmoil -- and the opposition has now been warned.

"Some may imagine that street action will create leverage against the system and force the authorities to give in to threats," he said at Friday Prayers in Tehran.

"No, this is wrong... "It must be determined at the ballot box what the people want and what they don't want, not in the streets," he warned. "I call on all top put an end to this method...If they don't, they will be held responsible for the chaos and the consequences.

The position of supreme leader has been controversial since it was created in the chaotic early days of the revolution to deal with internal squabbling. After his return from exile, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had originally returned to the religious center of Qom, but was forced to move back to Tehran as disputes among the fractious coalition that ousted the last shah began to fall apart.

Many of the Shiite clerics in Qom never embraced the idea of either a supreme leader or a central role for clerics in the new Islamic republic. Iran's revolution represented not just a political upheaval. It was also a revolution within Shiism, which for 14 centuries had prohibited a clerical role in politics. With clerics taking over government, many senior Shiite clerics feared that Islam would end up being tainted by the human flaws of the state.

The current crisis has effectively revived that debate -- and deepened the divide between the government and the Shiite clergy as well as with the public. The government includes many clerical institutions, including the 12-member Council of Guardians, the 86-member Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. But not even all of its members are happy with the election.

More importantly, senior clerics in Qom have noticeably failed to either endorse the election results or embrace Ahmadinejad, while long-time critics within the clergy used the crisis to encourage resistance to the supreme leader's dictates.

Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who was originally designated to become supreme leader until he criticized the regime's excesses in 1989, dismissed the election results and called on "everyone" to continue "reclaiming their dues" in calm protests. He also issued a warning to Iran's security forces not to accept government orders that might eventually condemn them "before God."

"Today censorship and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth," said Montazeri. "I pray for the greatness of the Iranian people."

Others have also bestowed legitimacy on the protests. Grand Ayatollah Saanei -- one of only about a dozen who hold that position -- pronounced Ahmadinejad's presidency illegitimate.

If Ahmadinejad's election is upheld at the end of Iran's deepest crisis since the 1979 revolution, the legitimacy of the supreme leader -- and potentially his ability to exert his powers--will almost certainly be diminished. Millions who have taken to the streets of Iran have already made that clear.