For those steeped in the arcane art of Khamenei-watching, June 19 holds a special significance. On that day, after issuing his much-anticipated ultimatum to the people of Iran, the Supreme Leader showed a side of himself never before seen in public: while finishing his blood-soaked sermon with a vow of martyrdom, instead of looking bold and defiant, he looked weak and pathetic. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man whose mien has inspired fear and awe in millions of people, actually had a lump in his throat. He fought back tears before tens of millions of bemused and perplexed viewers because in less than three weeks’ time, a system he had helped perfect–rule by a supreme religious leader–was showing signs of unraveling.
Pressure had been mounting as accusations swirled that Khamenei and the top brass of the Revolutionary Guards–working in concert with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–had perpetrated a vast election fraud aimed at defeating reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi and simultaneously purging the government of recalcitrant elements, beginning with the faction led by longtime Khamenei nemesis Hashemi Rafsanjani. Apparently confident of success, the alleged conspirators did not foresee the huge popular movement that took up Moussavi’s cause. On June 15 close to 800,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of downtown Tehran. The numbers kept swelling for two days, until Khamenei ended the brief Tehran Spring with his ultimatum and a massive show of force.
In the past few weeks, millions of Iranians have voted with their feet, marched peacefully, experienced mass catharsis, fought pitched street battles and defied the government’s edicts with increasing confidence. Before the crackdown, they got a taste of freedom and personal empowerment, and they won’t soon forget it.
Khamenei’s anguished sermon on June 19 was not provoked simply by the popular uprising in the streets. According to a well-placed source in the holy city of Qom, Rafsanjani is working furiously behind the scenes to call for an emergency meeting of the Khobregan, or Assembly of Experts–the elite all-cleric body that can unseat the Supreme Leader or dilute his prerogatives. The juridical case against Khamenei would involve several counts. First, he would be charged with countenancing a coup d’état–albeit a bloodless one–without consulting with the Khobregan. Second, he would stand accused of deceitfully plotting to oust Rafsanjani–who is the Khobregan chairman and nominally the country’s third-most-important authority–from his positions of power. Third, he would be said to have threatened the very stability of the republic with his ambition and recklessness.