Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke to the Iranian people during Friday prayers June 19, siding with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ordering protesters to end their demonstrations. Khamenei has decided that using force to suppress the uprising is worth the risk, even if it leads to greater infighting among the power brokers of the system. It remains unclear if Ahmadinejad's opponents will stage a showdown, but the protests have grown enough in size and energy to take on a life of their own.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a rare but critical Friday sermon prayer June 19 in which he addressed the continuing public unrest in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the June 12 presidential election, as well as the schism among the country's political leadership. As expected, he took a clear position in favor of the president, rejecting accusations of electoral fraud and framing the conflict in terms of foreign powers exploiting the Islamic republic's internal troubles. More importantly, he warned both the protesters and their leaders to halt the demonstrations and that they would be responsible for any bloodshed. Khamenei has clearly opted for the forcible suppression of the uprising. STRATFOR had pointed out in a previous report that the country's elite ideological military force, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has taken command of domestic law enforcement in Tehran. Consequently, from today forward, we can expect to see security forces crush protests. That the two main defeated challengers of Ahamdinejad, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi did not attend the prayer session shows that they are not about to accept the verdict. At the same time, Mousavi and Karroubi cannot be perceived as openly defying the supreme leader and they have an interest in the preservation of the cleric-led political system. Furthermore, their supporters on the streets are far more radical than they are because Mousavi and Karroubi are part and parcel of the system (something which Khamenei pointed out when he said that that all four candidates in the recent presidential election belonged to Iran's Islamic establishment). Therefore, they will have a hard time balancing between the need to sustain their opposition to the results of the election and controlling the protesters on the streets, especially during a major security crackdown. Regardless of whether the opposition leaders choose to take charge of the demonstrations, the protests have swelled enough in size and energy to take on a life of their own. Khamenei's speech also telegraphed to Ahmadinejad's opponents that he is fully behind the president. He said, "Differences of opinion do exist between officials which is natural. But it does not mean there is a rift in the system. Ever since the last presidential election there existed differences of opinion between Ahmadinejad and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the second most powerful cleric in the state). Of course my outlook is closer to that of Ahmadinejad in domestic and foreign policy." Khamenei also spoke of the difference between him and Rafsanjani, but also praised him as being "close" to the revolution. This puts Rafsanjani and his pragmatic conservative allies — including the powerful speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani and former IRGC chief and presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaie — in a difficult spot. On one hand, they cannot accept Ahmadinejad because he is a threat to their political interests. On the other, they cannot openly defy Khamenei as that could lead to the unraveling of the regime. This would explain why Larijani, along with Judiciary Chief Shahroudi and Tehran’s mayor Mohammed Baqer Ghalibaf — who are all key pragmatic conservatives who oppose the president — attended the sermon along with the president and his cabinet. Rezaie did not attend the sermon, but wrote a letter to Khamenei, signaling that he wanted to resolve the issues amicably under the leadership of Khamenei. Rafsanjani is therefore likely to face great difficulties in his efforts to build a consensus among the clerics against the president because now it is no longer simply about Ahmadinejad. Instead, his moves will be seen as facing off against the supreme leader. As the head of the Assembly of Experts, the most powerful institution in the country, which has the power to remove the supreme leader, he can make a move against Khamenei. That has never been done in the history of the Islamic republic. Therefore, it is unclear whether Rafsanjani is ready to escalate matters to such a level. The split amongst the political leadership is also manifesting itself in the country's security apparatus with reports of arrests of several IRGC commanders who do not agree with Ahmadinejad. The stage is now set for a major confrontation, but it is unclear who will emerge victorious. Regardless of which political faction wins, Khamenei has decided that it is worth the risk to bring in the IRGC. Though the Iranian state security apparatus is adept at extinguishing protests, it is still a risky gamble that will further fuel the fire of discontent.