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Iran's Supreme Leader Seeks To Divide Opposition

Supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei parade his picture at Tehran University, on June 19, 2009 in Tehran, Iran.
Getty Images
Supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei parade his picture at Tehran University, on June 19, 2009 in Tehran, Iran.

Analysts say the speech Friday by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be an effort to divide the opposition and defuse any future confrontations. But they also warned that a major showdown between government forces and protesters in the streets of Tehran could be inevitable.

In the Friday sermon aimed at silencing dissent over Iran's disputed election, Khamenei rejected charges of election fraud and declared that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won. The ayatollah also issued a thinly veiled threat to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi that he would be held accountable if mass protests continue.

"It was a remarkably tough speech, and he made it very clear that he is in total charge," said Mohsen Milani, a professor at the University of South Florida who studies Iranian politics.


Another opposition rally in Tehran was planned for Saturday. Khamenei, hinting at a possible government crackdown, said in his speech: "If they don't stop, the consequences of the chaos would be their responsibility."

Rafsanjani A Key?

But Khamenei also reached out to one of the opposition's behind-the-scenes leaders — Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad accused of corruption during the campaign.

Milani says Khamenei was remarkably conciliatory toward Rafsanjani, calling the former president "one of the main pillars of the Islamic Revolution" and one of his "closest confidants."

Rafsanjani has been one of the major supporters of Mousavi's bid for the presidency, but he has been publicly silent in recent days. Milani says Khamenei's overtures appear to be an effort to divide the opposition.


But Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center on Middle East Policy, said Khamenei's speech "made it clear that the regime is not trying to find some kind of creative compromise."

A Battle Of Wills?

Maloney says she thinks a crackdown is inevitable, in part because of the toughness of the two main adversaries, Khamenei and Mousavi.

Compared with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Maloney says Khamenei is more powerful and more assertive.

Mousavi, too, has a history of toughness, Maloney says. He was prime minister when Khamenei was president during the Iran-Iraq war. "He's been out there on the street during the demonstrations," she says, adding that is something previous reformers would not have done.

"Mousavi knows exactly what he's up against, and what the regime has done to previous opponents," Maloney says.

A key to Khamenei's ability to ease dissent will be whether he is able to woo Rafsanjani, who holds influential posts in the government, Milani said. During the campaign, the incumbent Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani of corruption.

It is significant that Khamenei rejected those charges in his speech, Milani said.

Milani believes that Khamenei was signaling to Rafsanjani that Ahmadinejad will not be able to pursue those allegations during his second term as president "because Rafsanjani wants concrete assurances that Ahmadinejad will not be allowed to clean up the house."