Protests present biggest challenge yet for Iran's supreme leader

Protests present biggest challenge yet for Iran's supreme leader
This June 12, 2009, file photo shows Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casting his ballot for the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran.
CAIRO (AP) - Iran's violence-tinged election dispute has pushed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state's most powerful figure, into the high-profile role of political referee.

The 70-year-old cleric reigns over Iran's Islamic system as part pope, part commander in chief and one-man supreme court. While the world's attention has focused in recent years on the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much of the real power rests with the country's unelected supreme leader.

Khamenei ordered an investigation Monday into fraud allegations in Ahmadinejad's re-election that have sparked the worst unrest in Tehran in a decade. The move came after Khamenei had urged the nation to unite behind Ahmadinejad a day after Friday's election and called the result a "divine assessment."

The probe by the Guardian Council, composed of clerics closely allied with Khamenei, illustrates the supreme leader's desire to avoid a drawn-out political battle that could endanger the stability and legitimacy of the country's Islamic theocracy. At the very least, the dramatic intervention could buy time in hopes of reducing the anti-Ahmadinejad anger.

Khamenei is a hard-liner who has battled reformists in the past, and whose support helped Ahmadinejad first get elected in 2005. But analysts say he is also a political realist, and in the past he has made concessions to ensure his main goals - his own survival and that of Iran's cleric-run system.

The current dispute, led by pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he is the rightful election winner, presents Khamenei with one of his biggest challenges yet - over the stability of the country's ruling system.

Moreover, Mousavi has the backing of one of Iran's most powerful politician-clerics, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, making it harder for the supreme leader to simply dismiss the reformists' claims.

As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say in all government matters in Iran - above the elected president and parliament - wielding power through his domination of unelected clerical bodies, as well as the judiciary and security forces, including the elite Revolutionary Guard.

Pictures of the white-bearded cleric wearing his signature black turban and glasses are ubiquitous throughout Iran.

Khamenei succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of Iran's Islamic revolution, after his death in 1989. Khamenei was initially seen as a weak figure, even though he had served two terms as Iran's president. Mild-mannered in comparison to the fiery father of the revolution, Khamenei was a relatively low-level cleric when he was bounced overnight to the top of the religious hierarchy.

Despite the initial skepticism, Khamenei has kept a strong grip on power and has been central in pushing policies that have locked Iran into confrontation with the U.S.

He has personally set policy for the country's nuclear program, drawing the red line that Iran would not give up uranium enrichment, even as the refusal pushed the U.N. to impose sanctions. He has also strengthened ties with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Perhaps Khamenei's most prominent action prior to the election dispute was his role in blunting the popular reform movement that arose in the late 1990s when Mohammad Khatami was elected president and reformists took control of parliament.

Like Mousavi, Khatami was supported by Iran's youth, who demanded a loosening of the strict social rules imposed by the 1979 Islamic revolution and called for improved ties with the outside world, including the country's archenemy, the United States.

Hard-liners backed by Khamenei were able to contain and eventually crush the reform trend. Judges repeatedly closed down liberal newspapers. Khamenei himself stepped in to prevent parliament from amending laws that imposed restrictions on the media.

Unelected bodies directed by the supreme leader were also able to block other key legislation pushed by the liberals. They barred many reformists from running in elections, ensuring the return of hard-liner control of parliament in 2004 and helping Ahmadinejad win the following year.

Khamenei's intervention was seen as the start of the reformists' decline and a signal that the clerical leadership would not allow fundamental change.

But criticism over Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy and his antagonistic attitude toward the international community has re-energized reformists, who challenge the president's 2-to-1 victory over Mousavi. Protesters have staged three days of violent demonstrations in Tehran, setting fires and battling riot police.

Mousavi's supporters aren't the only ones who are upset. The two other candidates, reformist Mahdi Karroubi and conservative Mohsen Rezaei, have also alleged irregularities in the voting. They are backed by Khatami and, perhaps more importantly, Rafsanjani, who heads two powerful clerical government bodies. Rafsanjani is a former ally of Khamenei who has since become a key rival.

Security forces have struck back with targeted arrests of pro-reform activists and by blocking text messaging and pro-Mousavi Web sites used to rally his supporters. But those steps have failed to stem the protests.

Khamenei shifted course Monday when he directed the Guardian Council to look into the allegations of vote fraud. The decision came after Mousavi wrote a letter appealing to the 12-member council, which authorizes election results, and met with Khamenei on Sunday.