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Iran's Khamenei May Be A Casualty In Vote Crisis

This article is more than 10 years old.

Just a few weeks ago, they would have been virtually unthinkable acts of defiance in Iran: standing up to the supreme leader, ignoring his warnings to stay off the streets - then chanting for his death.

But the boisterous opposition protests thrusting Iran into its worst civil unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have broken the taboo against direct criticism of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now some are talking about him as a casualty of the crisis - and wondering if the aloof cleric's powerful office will survive after his eventual death.

For two decades, Khamenei's word has been law in Iran, where the supreme leader is considered God's representative on Earth. Today he is reviled, not revered, by thousands of supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he was defrauded in the June 12 presidential elections.

Unprecedented chants of "Death to Khamenei!" by some protesters underscore an astonishing blow to the 70-year-old cleric's standing.

"The election dispute may further erode his religious and political authority, especially among the traditional clergy, leaving him even more dependent on the Revolutionary Guard," Iran's most powerful and feared security force, said Ali Nader, an Iran expert with the RAND Corp.

Khamenei, to be sure, has spent years meticulously cultivating support in the powerful military and judiciary, and that could mean he remains secure in the country's top job.

Khamenei quickly endorsed the results of the disputed election, which gave a landslide victory to his ally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Militiamen loyal to Khamenei used lethal violence to crush street protests, one day after he warned in a nationally televised Friday sermon of bloodshed if opposition demonstrations continued.

His handling of the crisis and his support for the hard-line Ahmadinejad emboldened protesters to ignore his warning. And at the high echelons of the ruling elite, his actions have tempted two former presidents - reformist Mohammad Khatami and powerful insider Hashemi Rafsanjani - to come out in sympathy with the protesters, dealing another blow to Khamenei's standing.

Questioning the judgment and actions of a leader is not at all unusual in democracies, but it is a very serious step in Iran, where the supreme leader traditionally is a revered patriarchal figure whose word should be gospel to his nation.

But Khamenei has lost face. That has weakened him and is likely to prompt questions about his leadership for years to come.

Removing him from office may be difficult - though by no means impossible - but he may never live down what is widely seen among Iranians as the divisive role he played in a crisis in which a father-of-the-nation role was expected from him.

Additionally, there are no obvious successors at present to Khamenei.

Iran's crisis began when Mousavi, a former prime minister who served under Khamenei when the latter was president in the 1980s, charged that Ahmadinejad was re-elected through widespread fraud. Mousavi has demanded a new election, an option Khamenei has flatly rejected.

Experts say Khamenei's actions could revive a long-stewing debate on whether he had the proper scholarly credentials to assume the land's highest office back in 1989. The Council of Experts, a powerful clerical body, has the authority to remove the supreme leader, but such a move could plunge the country into turmoil unless agreed in advance with the nation's military and judiciary.

Khamenei's handling of the election crisis also could bring to the fore another simmering argument among senior clerics on whether Iran, 30 years after the Islamic revolution, still needs a supreme leader.

However, doing away with the job would need a change in the constitution, something that may not be easily attainable giving the factional nature of Iran's political establishment.

Frederic Tellier, an Iran expert with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, believes removing Khamenei from office is unlikely given the balance of power in Iran.

But Tellier won't rule out a change in the system when Khamenei is gone.

"After Khamenei, the possibility of a joint leadership looks more credible and a way to preserve the balance between the factions and diverse sensitivities of the Islamic Republic," he said.

Like his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - the father of the 1979 revolution - Khamenei came to his position under the doctrine of Welayet-al-Faqeeh: the right of the most learned to rule the nation. However, the doctrine is not universally accepted by Shiite clerics in Iran, and Khamenei himself was not a senior-enough cleric to get the job.

Those opposed to the doctrine are mostly senior clerics of the "quietest" school, which opposes the involvement in politics by the clergy and advocates that they remain above the fray as the people's spiritual guides. However, most of Iran's younger clerics have grown with the Welayet-al-Faqeeh doctrine and know no other.

Khamenei has spent years building a power base in the armed forces and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force that operates as the regime's chief protector. His authority has not rested on the religious credentials he is supposed to have as a supreme leader.

That means that what Khamenei lacks in charisma and scholarly pedigree, he makes up for with support in powerful institutions.

"Khamenei inherited the position with little religious justification and scholarship and limited prestige," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He lives largely on a mixture of the impact Khomeini had, the support of other leaders in the government, and the power over the security forces."

Challenging the supreme leader openly is not unheard of in Iran, but those who dared do it paid a high price.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a leader of the revolution who was once tipped as Khomeini's successor, fell out with the ruling clergy in 1989 over his advocacy for civil and human rights. He has been sidelined since, living in the holy city of Qom - sometimes under house arrest - but that did not stop him from openly criticizing Ahmadinejad.

This program aired on June 24, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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