The news that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ordered an investigation into charges of voter fraud in his country's presidential elections has been greeted with skepticism by many in the West. After all, it was Ayatullah Khamenei, who holds the ultimate authority in the theocratic nation, who rushed to embrace incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the victor long before the ballots were counted. But his order to the Guardian Council, the powerful watchdog of the Iranian constitution, to start an investigation may not be as cynical as it appears.
Of course, there is political calculation to Khamenei's investigation. It neutralizes the main demand around which the opposition is rallying on the streets and imposes a de facto 10-day cooling-off period that could sap, even demoralize, the anti-Ahamdinejad demonstrations. The huge rally in support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi in Tehran on Monday is enough to make any ruler, autocrat or not, tremble. All of this opens the Supreme Leader's window of vulnerability to one very powerful enemy.
As much as some Iranian conservatives may wish otherwise, the Islamic republic has never been able to seal tight state rule over society: it is a sloppy authoritarian state with elements of democracy. Iranian democracy may not be recognizably Western, but its dynamic seeps into the highest echelons of power, even if it is embodied in an instinct for consensus among a clerical élite with diverse opinions. It is a dynamic that even Khamenei has to answer to.
Apart from the Iranian electorate, Khamenei has a couple of very important constituencies to deal with. Indeed, while most people describe Khamenei as the unelected leader of Iran, he was chosen by a small but critical institution, the Assembly of Experts. He must also deal with the Guardian Council, which is equally small but also influential and must certify the election results. Some pundits are now arguing that the Assembly of Experts could find constitutional means to remove Iran's Supreme Leader and that a refusal by the Guardian Council to validate the election could throw the country into further crisis.
The main impetus for this speculation is the influence in both groups of Ayatullah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the last surviving powerful member of the revolution's founding fathers. Rafsanjani was a very loud critic of Ahmadinejad, and thus indirectly of the President's patron, the Supreme Leader. Since 2007, Rafsanjani has been the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to call for Khamenei's ouster. He is also the chairman of an important advisory body that has dealings with the Guardian Council. Throwing the investigation into the hands of the council may be an attempt by Khamenei to buy more time to build consensus about what to do next and to restore the uneasy equilibrium between himself and Rafsanjani.
Before the June 12 vote, Rafsanjani and Khamenei were involved in a public spat over Ahmadinejad, with Rafsanjani wanting the Supreme Leader to censure the President for what he described as slanderous remarks. Khamenei refused. Ahmadinejad's followers continue to see Rafsanjani (also a former President) as the enemy. At Ahmadinejad's celebratory rally on Sunday, almost all chants were directed against Rafsanjani. He is seen as the big threat; there is even speculation that Rafsanjani may see himself as the next Supreme Leader, which would be disastrous for the President.
Political scientists in Iran are skeptical that Rafsanjani would make a move to oust Khamenei. But there is intense internal maneuvering going on right now in the hallways of power, invisible to the massive demonstrations in the streets of Iran's big cities, which in turn feed the backroom dealings. For while it is still unlikely that Rafsanjani will make the unprecedented move to remove the Supreme Leader, the more chaotic Iran gets, the more it allows Rafsanjani to find some lever to pull or to do something dramatic. It is in Khamenei's interest, then, to cool down the demonstrations.
In 1979, everyone wanted the Shah to fall, but no one believed that it was thinkable. Then, suddenly, it became so. The 1979 Revolution, once in motion, took months to play out. Even to those within it, none knew what was exactly happening, how long it would take or whether there would be a successful conclusion. The same applies to the situation now.