- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Conventional wisdom about Iran has long been that the nation’s senior Muslim cleric would have the final say on domestic and foreign policies, no matter who won the June 12 presidential election.

But that calculus has been challenged with the explosion of protests in the streets. Iran analysts say Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could well emerge diminished in stature because of his too-quick confirmation of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — an outcome now discredited by allegations of fraud.

“Whatever happens, Khamenei comes out looking bad,” said Judith Yaphe, an Iran specialist at the National Defense University.

“It’s a turning point,” she added. “There has been nothing like this since the [1979] revolution.”

She and other analysts sketch three scenarios, none of which is friendly to Ayatollah Khamenei.

• The first and most likely scenario is that an investigation the ayatollah ordered Monday into the election results by the Guardian Council, a body largely appointed by the supreme leader, grants additional votes to Mir Hossein Mousavi and other challengers, but the incumbent still wins. Protests eventually peter out, but supporters of Mr. Mousavi, who have risked their lives to come into the streets, still feel cheated, and the situation remains unstable.

• A second scenario has the government cracking down on protesters as China did in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In that case, Ayatollah Khamenei remains in power - but “at a huge cost” to his legitimacy, Ms. Yaphe said.

• In a third scenario, the government concedes that the election results were doctored and Mr. Mousavi becomes president, in which case Iran will in effect have gone through another popular revolution.

“If Mousavi comes out as the victor, the supreme leader’s role would be very much redefined,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “His powers will have been shown not to be absolute.”

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has had a unique form of government — a so-called Islamic republic that combines clerical oversight with regular elections for president and parliament. Iranian leaders have long bragged that their nation is far more democratic than the monarchies and “hereditary” democracies in nearby Arab states, and they point to Iran’s voter turnout, which typically exceeds 50 percent.

However, clerical authorities vet candidates for elected office, disqualify opposition figures and have overruled reforms enacted by parliament that would have diminished the power of the supreme leader. Election irregularities have been reported in the past but have not sparked such massive protests.

The brazen way in which the regime announced the election results when the polls had barely closed and gave figures that many Iranians found implausible have now put Ayatollah Khamenei on the defensive before his own people, analysts say.

Mehdi Khalaji, who observes the supreme leader at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Ayatollah Khamenei miscalculated badly by initially accepting the election results as “divinely blessed.”

In Mr. Khalaji’s view, the supreme leader has sided with Mr. Ahmadinejad and hard-line members of the security forces because the ayatollah has never commanded the respect of revolutionary leaders from his own generation.

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