It would appear that Iran's political crisis is entering the end-game phase. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to slam the door June 19 on any chance of a political compromise. In a sermon at Tehran University, he resolutely defended the integrity of the country's rigged presidential election result, and threatened protesters with retribution. The only way now open for Iran to resolve the presidential election controversy is through a test of strength.
The harsh tone of Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon suggests that hardliners are prepared to resort to force in order to defend Iran's theocracy. According to some reports, Revolutionary Guard units will be deployed on June 20 to confront demonstrators, if a mass protest comes together as planned for that day. If the Guards are indeed deployed in the coming days, many Iranians believe there is a good chance that they would open fire on protesters. Ayatollah Khamenei added on June 19 that if a violent confrontation does take place, the protesters will be responsible for bringing it upon themselves.
"If they [protesters] do not stop, they must face the consequences. If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible," the supreme leader said. Ayatollah Khamenei also dismissed any notion that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had relied on fraud to win reelection as president on June 12. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While offering unrelenting support for Ahmadinejad's power grab, the supreme leader also appeared to tacitly offer his chief antagonist, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an olive branch. He suggest that personal attacks against Rafsanjani concerning corruption had gone too far.
Shortly after the supreme leader's sermon, some of his main opponents within the hierarchy began to push back. Mehdi Karoubi, one of three supposedly defeated candidates in the June 12 presidential election, issued an open letter on June 19 that openly defied the supreme leader. "Accept the Iranian nation's will by cancelling the [presidential] vote, and guarantee the system's survival," said the letter, which was posted on Karoubi's website.
In addition, Rafsanjani does not seem inclined to make peace with Ayatollah Khamenei. Rafsanjani has made no public comments since the election confrontation erupted. But, according to a source familiar with Rafsanjani's political style, when he is silent, he is plotting.
The scheme that Rafsanjani is said to be presently working on is a big one: he is reportedly in contact with Iran's top clerics in the holy city of Qom, working to secure a statement from the religious leadership that would make it untenable for Ahmadinejad to remain in the presidency. Rafsanjani is also reportedly seeking to build consensus among the country's top clerics for an initiative that would alter the institution of the Supreme Leader, turning it into a collective body, rather than a single individual. Rafsanjani and others pushing for the creation of a collective religious leadership are said not to be interested in jettisoning Ayatollah Khamenei, but merely in placing checks on his authority. Attempting to oust the supreme leader, they believe, could easily precipitate civil war at this stage.
Many in Tehran believe the next few days will be critical in determining the outcome of the political crisis. If hundreds of thousands of Iranians continue to take to the streets of Tehran, hardliners will have either back up their tough rhetoric, or make way for a new guard.
Both sides are feeling the burden of responsibility for the next step. The aggrieved presidential challenger and nominal head of the protest movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi, ignored Ayatollah Khamenei's direct order to attend Friday Prayers at Tehran University on June 19. But later in the day, a Mousavi aide suggested that the presidential candidate was not calling on his supporters to attend a protest rally on June 20. It was unclear whether the report was merely a tactic designed to keep hardliners guessing as to when and where the June 20 demonstration would take place, or whether the supreme leader's sermon was having the desired effect of causing protest supporters to back down. Other reports, meanwhile, had Mousavi issuing a call to attend a protest march that was scheduled to begin at 4 pm on June 20.
On the other side of the political divide, some Tehran residents who watched Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon reported that his energy level seemed much lower than in recent public appearances, suggesting that the experiences of the past week had shaken his self-confidence. His rhetoric may have been fire-and-brimstone, but his delivery left some supporters uninspired and wondering whether the leaders of the hardliner cause were truly convinced that they could survive this stand-off.