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Authority Of Iran's Supreme Leader Is Key To Divisions

Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei flanked by a photo of his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, in Mashhad in 2007

Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei flanked by a photo of his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, in Mashhad in 2007

Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who also oversees the Basij Resistance Force, has made two speeches over the past week that elicited sharp responses from reformist organizations, including the Association of Combatant Clerics and the Islamic Iran Participation Front. One member of parliament has even called for Jafari to be prosecuted for interfering in politics.

Jafari's statements come amid the tense atmosphere reigning in Iran since the harsh government crackdown on dissent following the disputed June 12 presidential election. In all, nongovernment sources claim, more than 70 people have been killed and hundreds arrested since that vote.

On August 29, the general defended the actions of Basij units in the crackdown and described Basij members as "oppressed." Jafari claimed that 13 Basij members and seven others who occasionally cooperated with the Basij had been killed in violence; he also said that no more than nine demonstrators had lost their lives, although the camp of opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi puts the figure at 72.

In his explanation of a violent attack on June 15 by plainclothes and uniformed security forces on a Tehran University dormitory that left some students dead, Jafari said the participants not in uniform were not Basij members. Some witnesses, though, have identified the participants either as Basiji or Basij-sponsored vigilantes operating in tandem with uniformed troops.

Taking Aim

Two days later, Jafari gave another speech, this time addressing veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he accused former President Mohammad Khatami and two other key reformists of challenging the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He said the reformist agenda includes undermining the authority of the supreme leader, denying that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad won the June election, and removing the principalists from the political arena forever.

Jafari alleged that in February, Khatami said: "If Ahmadinejad falls in this election, the [supreme] leader will be effectively eliminated. If by any means the reformists take control of the executive branch, the leader will have no authority in society. By defeating the principalists, we will contain the power of the leader."

Such charges effectively paint Khatami as an enemy of the ruling system. And while there is no way to confirm the authenticity of that quotation, Jafari would seem to be admitting that the security forces were monitoring the activities of top reformists well before the June election.

In the same speech, Jafari also linked the reformist agenda with "turning away from the principles and ideals of the revolution," adding ominously that "this is what America wants."

Khamenei's Remarks

Jafari appears to be setting the stage for a bigger purge of key reformists than is already in progress, and possibly even for the arrest of reformist leaders.

But Khamenei has taken a different approach. Recently, meeting with academics and representatives of student organizations, he said the Tehran University dormitory attack was a "major violation" and that he does not consider the protest leaders to be agents of America or Britain.

He also said the judiciary would definitely deal with "offenses and crimes" that occurred in the aftermath of the election. Khamenei has already closed a key detention center, Kahrizak, amid widespread complaints about the treatment of detained opposition activists, including charges of abuses in IRGC-run jails.

Such statements differ sharply from what Khamenei was saying immediately after the election.

At Friday Prayers in Tehran on June 19, he offered open support for Ahmadinejad and the principalists. He threatened the "leaders behind the protests" and called them agents of foreign intelligence services and Zionists. Those comments were widely perceived as a green light for security forces to carry out a violent crackdown against the protesters.

Who's In Charge?

This change of tone is most likely a tactical withdrawal on Khamenei's part, and it comes in the wake of a serious blow to the legitimacy of his position as an above-the-fray spiritual leader. Increasingly he has been seen as partisan and has been called to answer for the government's actions during and after the election.

Some high-ranking clerics, including Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, have accused the supreme leader of trampling Islamic values in order to preserve his absolute power.

The extent of the supreme leader's authority is one of the main issues dividing the reformists and the conservatives -- the IRGC and the principalists.

In the view of the conservatives, Khamenei is above the law, a status he inherited from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said the supreme leader can suspend or set aside even basic tenets of Islam to protect the Islamic republic.

The reformists, however, seek checks on the leader's vast authority, and some have even challenged the notion that the supreme leader's authority comes directly from God.

So far, there is no sign that the reformists will back down from their efforts to introduce accountability. They continue challenging the narrative put out by principalists like Jafari, and slogans denouncing Khamenei as a "dictator" continue to be heard in Tehran.

Hossein Aryan is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL