CAIRO – Iran's violence-tinged election dispute has pushed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state's most powerful figure, into the high-profile role of political referee.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot for the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday June 12, 2009. [Agencies]
The 70-year-old cleric reigns over Iran's Islamic system as part pope, part commander in chief and one-man supreme court. While the world's attention has focused in recent years on the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much of the real power rests with the country's unelected supreme leader.
Khamenei ordered an investigation Monday into fraud allegations in Ahmadinejad's re-election that have sparked the worst unrest in Tehran in a decade. The move came after Khamenei had urged the nation to unite behind Ahmadinejad a day after Friday's election and called the result a "divine assessment."
The probe by the Guardian Council, composed of clerics closely allied with Khamenei, illustrates the supreme leader's desire to avoid a drawn-out political battle that could endanger the stability and legitimacy of the country's Islamic theocracy. At the very least, the dramatic intervention could buy time in hopes of reducing the anti-Ahmadinejad anger.
Khamenei is a hard-liner who has battled reformists in the past, and whose support helped Ahmadinejad first get elected in 2005. But analysts say he is also a political realist, and in the past he has made concessions to ensure his main goals — his own survival and that of Iran's cleric-run system.
The current dispute, led by pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he is the rightful election winner, presents Khamenei with one of his biggest challenges yet — over the stability of the country's ruling system.
Moreover, Mousavi has the backing of one of Iran's most powerful politician-clerics, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, making it harder for the supreme leader to simply dismiss the reformists' claims.
As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say in all government matters in Iran — above the elected president and parliament — wielding power through his domination of unelected clerical bodies, as well as the judiciary and security forces, including the elite Revolutionary Guard.
Pictures of the white-bearded cleric wearing his signature black turban and glasses are ubiquitous throughout Iran.
Khamenei succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of Iran's Islamic revolution, after his death in 1989. Khamenei was initially seen as a weak figure, even though he had served two terms as Iran's president. Mild-mannered in comparison to the fiery father of the revolution, Khamenei was a relatively low-level cleric when he was bounced overnight to the top of the religious hierarchy.