TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's supreme leader has imposed his will on the streets with security forces that crushed mass protests over the country's disputed election. But he faces an unprecedented level of behind-the-scenes political discontent among the Muslim clerics who form the theological bedrock of the Islamic Republic.
The bitterness could represent a deeper, long-term challenge to the rule of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The outright rejection by some clerics of election results that Khamenei ruled valid breaks a basic taboo against criticizing the man who in the philosophy of the Islamic Revolution literally represents God's rule on earth.
Khamenei's political strategy since taking his position in 1989 has been to maintain a consensus among competing factions. But now to preserve power he may have to rely on a far narrower base of hard-line ayatollahs - and more than ever before on the security services, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, the elite protectors of the system.
A major question looking ahead will be whether discontented clerics will aggressively push their criticisms behind the scenes, and whether their followers who look to them for spiritual guidance will rally behind the reformist political opposition.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the June 12 elections, has made clear he will push ahead with his campaign against the government. The opposition says official election results that showed a landslide victory for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were fraudulent.
But how he can push his campaign remains unclear. The dramatic protests that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets for days have been shattered by the crackdown by police, Revolutionary Guards and Basij militiamen, in which at least 20 protesters and 7 Basiji militiamen were killed and over 1,000 arrested. The options for political action likely will remain limited.
The show of divisions among clerics over the election has been stunning, though some have chosen to make clear their opposition by silence.
Among the nine ayatollahs holding the topmost clerical rank - "marja' taqlid," or a "model for imitation" - only one has congratulated Ahmadinejad on his election victory. Three of them have spoken out overtly against the election and the wave of arrests.
One of them, Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei - who normally comments little on political affairs - warned on Friday that "due to the lack of public support, the government may face legal and civil problems and a lack of competency."
The marja's have widespread followings across the country. While some have long been critical of hard-liners, their backing for Iran's Islamic system, headed by Khamenei, is usually deep, making their criticism more resounding. The discontent has also seeped down to lower levels off the thousands of clerics, centred in the holy city of Qom, the heart of the religious establishment.
"The least we can say is that this government's legitimacy is in doubt. A majority of the people don't believe that Ahmadinejad was their vote," said Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, a leader of the Association of Teachers and Researchers, an influential clerical group at Qom Seminary that issued a statement last week against the election crackdown.
"People were peacefully protesting election results and the response to that should not be the bullet," Tabrizi told The Associated Press this week. "The harsh crackdown was illogical. They could have handled it without any blood being shed."
The street protests were perhaps the largest direct challenge ever to the Islamic leadership. After Khamenei took a tough line in putting them down, his clearest support has come from the most hard-line clerics. So far, he has kept the support of the three main clerical councils that oversee the government, like the powerful Guardians Council.
Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadaei, a conservative Ahmadinejad supporter, has called on the opposition to "choose silence to preserve the system."
The clerical dissent opens up a philosophical faultline that has long run through the Islamic Republic system: how to balance the rule of unelected clerics - including the supreme leader - who are seen as preserving divine will, with democracy that reflects popular will. Hardliners tend to emphasize the former, and the most conservative dismiss the importance of popular opinion completely.
For those ultra-conservative clerics, elections do not give legitimacy, only God. For them, power descended through a line of imams that started with Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and ended with the 12th imam, who disappeared in the 9th century but who they believe will return before the Day of Judgment. Until his return, governing should be held by the supreme leader, a top "jurisconsult," or scholar of Islam.
On Wednesday, hard-line Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi issued a message directed implicitly at the opposition, reminding them that the supreme leader alone has the right to govern.
"The administration of power has been transferred from the imams to the supreme jurisconsult," he told students in Qom in a speech carried by the semiofficial Fars news agency. "The jurisconsult has guardianship to administer the Islamic system according to Islamic rulings and not on the basis of his personal opinions."
During the height of the crisis, one of the most ultra-conservative ayatollahs drilled that message directly to the Revolutionary Guards, urging them to put aside any doubt and follow the supreme leader. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi - believed to be Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor - addressed a gathering of Guards commanders on June 22, only days after security forces broke up one of the biggest protests.
"Do not be worried about the events and earthquakes that have occurred. Know that God created this world as a test," he told them. "The supreme leader holds a great many of the blessings God has given us and at a time of such uncertainties our eyes must turn to him."
An increased reliance on the Revolutionary Guards to maintain power would be a dramatic change for the clerical leadership. In the past, Khamenei has been able to maintain at least the quiet acceptance of most clerics by taking occasional steps to rein in hard-liners. In the past, that has been enough to maintain popular support among Iran's largely religious population, even if a liberal fringe demanded greater reform.
Dareini reported from Tehran, Keath from Cairo, Egypt.