For the first time since the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country's supreme spiritual leader has plunged into partisan politics. The development, some experts speculate, could be an indicator that the time for compromise with the international community on Iran's nuclear program has passed.
In recent months, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has hinted repeatedly that he backs President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative administration. The clearest expression of support came in mid-December, when, with Iran gearing up for a presidential election in June, Ayatollah Khamenei offered what many observers interpreted as an endorsement of Ahmadinejad's re-election bid.
Ahmadinejad's popularity, even among various conservative factions, has plunged along with the global price of oil and natural gas. Many Iranians blame the administration for the country's economic mess, in particular spiraling inflation and festering unemployment. Yet in his December 13 speech, made ostensibly to commemorate National Student Day, Ayatollah Khamenei hailed the embattled president as a "revolutionary" leader who is "effective, active and courageous."
The supreme leader went on to urge Iranians to cast their presidential ballots for the candidate who showed the "courage and self-confidence" to guard the "principles that constitute the regime's identity." Ayatollah Khamenei then cautioned the population against placing "weak and impotent individuals" in positions of power.
"If one day, among the country's officials we find weak and impotent officials like Shah Sultan Hussein [an Iranian king under whose rule the Afghans sacked the country's capital], the era of this country and the Islamic Republic is over," Ayatollah Khamenei said.
"Weak and impotent officials turn courageous nations into weak nations," the ayatollah added.
Ayatollah Khamenei did not mention specific names, but observers in Iran widely assumed his criticism was aimed at the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Rumors have circulated in Tehran recently that Khatami is thinking about making another run for the presidency in June. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"[Ayatollah Khamenei's December 13] speech promises to be an important statement in the historical context," said an Iranian academic who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "For one thing, at no point, going back at least 28 years, has the country's Supreme Leader broken with his official status as an impartial arbiter of factional differences to endorse the election of one person or one faction."
Judging from Ayatollah Khamenei's comments, he evidently worries that the Islamic Republic may have to grapple with a major crisis in 2009, or perhaps soon thereafter.
"Nothing could explain this unprecedented development except extraordinary contingencies that the Supreme Leader must be aware of," said the Iranian political scientist. "Since domestically, the country has never been more stable, the leading cause of the Leader's decision is probably external in nature."
The academic refused to speculate more on the matter, but other experts pointed to Iran's standoff with the international community on the nuclear issue as the most likely cause of Ayatollah Khamenei's politically partisan statements.
A few observers in Tehran advance a different theory: the arch-conservative Supreme Leader worries about the slight possibility that his theological and ideological opponents, operating through Khatami, could pull off an upset victory in the June election.
While still highly likely, especially with Ayatollah Khamenei's strong support, Ahmadinejad's re-election is not a sure thing.
The chief fear of the Supreme Leader and his closest associates evidently is that a return of reformists to power would mean the ruin of the Islamic Republic. Underscoring this fear, Ayatollah Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ayatollah Ali Sa'idi, praised Ahmadinejad's administration as being motivated by "piety and steadfastness." The reformists, on the other hand, were incapable of standing up "against arrogant world powers," Sa'idi added.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Ahmadinejad's reelection chances does not emanate from the reformist camp, but is found in the lack of support for his administration among conservative factions -- outside of the president's own Neo-Con clique.
In the weeks prior to the Supreme Leader's December 13 speech, there was a crescendo of opposition to Ahmadinejad and his government voiced by a variety of right-wing factions, ranging from conservative traditionalists to former allies of the president in the security establishment. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Much of the growing opposition stems from the Ahmadinejad administration's mismanagement of the economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But there is also widespread resentment relating to his faction's efforts to monopolize power, specifically the perquisites and privileges thereof.
Rival factions had been pushing the idea of a grand conservative coalition taking over from Ahmadinejad's administration. Ayatollah Khamenei's December 13 speech, however, derailed this notion, at least for the time being. It's too soon to say, however, whether the Supreme Leader's maneuvering can permanently end the conservatives' revolt against Ahmadinejad.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.