The religious leadership that has dominated Iran since the 1979 revolution has been largely sidelined in what is shaping up as a confrontation between a mainly secular protest movement and a supreme leader whose strength lies less in religious authority than in raw military power, Iran specialists say.
The massive protests that have rocked Tehran for a fourth consecutive day this week are the first since a pro-democracy movement emerged in Iran in 1905, forcing the establishment of a parliament, that have taken place without clerical leadership, said Mehdi Khalaji, an analyst on Iran’s clerics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The demonstrators — hundreds of thousands of whom turned out again Thursday to demand a new election — use religious trappings and chant “God is great” from their rooftops at night, but are led largely by young nonreligious Iranians who rely on such modern networking tools as Facebook and Twitter.
Another showdown with the government is likely at noon prayers Friday — another fixture of the Iranian system that has less to do with religion than with political power.
Mr. Khalaji said Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential cleric and former president who in the past has addressed Friday prayers, has been put under house arrest in part to keep him from organizing religious opposition to what increasingly looks like a military dictatorship. The Fars news agency, which is close to the Iranian government, reported Thursday that Mr. Rafsanjani’s children have been forbidden to leave the country.
Mr. Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member elected body of clerics that under the Iranian constitution has the power to dismiss the supreme leader of Iran — for the past 20 years Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In recent years, however, Ayatollah Khamenei has allied himself with secular hard-liners who are mostly veterans of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s elite military force. Among them is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has filled his Cabinet with other former Guard officers.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, in a televised debate with Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man many Iranians think actually won the June 12 vote, accused Mr. Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s richest men, of being corrupt.
There have been reports that Mr. Rafsanjani visited Qom, Iran’s theological center, last weekend to try to rally senior Shi’ite Muslim clerics to condemn the apparent election fraud.
Three grand ayatollahs have responded, but they are the same three who have gone on the record in the past denouncing government policies to little effect, Mr. Khalaji said.
The three include Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, an elderly cleric who was the designated successor to the leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Khomeini cast him aside, however, after Ayatollah Montazeri complained about the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Ayatollah Khomeini died the next year without naming a replacement; in a twist of historical irony, it was Mr. Rafsanjani who urged that the job go to Ayatollah Khamenei even though he lacked religious credentials to even be an ayatollah, which means “sign of God.”
Two other grand ayatollahs — Yusef al-Sa’nei and Mousavi Ardabili — also have condemned the Iranian government for using force against the demonstrators, which has resulted in more than 30 deaths. However, Mr. Khalaji said the dozen or so other senior clerics in Qom are doing little.
“The clerics are scared,” said Mr. Khalaji, the son of an ayatollah and a former religious student in Qom.
Mohsen Kadivar, an Islamic scholar and researcher at Duke University who has been jailed by the Iranian government in the past, said its actions this week have not been in accordance with Islam.
“Asking for civic rights and requesting that their votes be respected does not give any right to military personnel to open fire on people,” he said. The “Koran says clearly that any one who murders any person who has not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people.”
An Iranian close to the reformist camp who spoke from Europe and asked not to be identified to protect his employer, told The Washington Times that a struggle is under way in Iran between two visions of Islamic rule. One sees the supreme leader as chosen by God and not requiring any popular approval through elections; the other says that the clerical leadership must have the support of the people as expressed through elections.
A second Iranian who also spoke on the condition that he not be named said he doubted that the Assembly of Experts would move against Ayatollah Khamenei but that if the demonstrations continue, there might be a popular call to replace him with Mr. Rafsanjani.
Ahmad Iravani, an Iranian ayatollah who teaches Islamic law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said the Iranian government was in a way responsible for the outpouring of protests because it permitted the broadcast of contentious debates between the candidates before the election which raised the level of popular excitement and encouraged more than 80 percent of eligible people to vote.
“I am optimistic in the long term that this will turn out in the favor of the Iranian people,” he said. “For the first time in years, Iranians are reuniting with each other” and demanding their rights. “So far, it has been good.”
• Mehdi Jedinia contributed to this report.
• Barbara Slavin can be reached at .