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Iranian Leadership Split On Response

In the wake of the contested election, the top leadership of the Iranian regime has been harshly criticized, both inside and outside the country. Portrayed in many cases as the decayed and out-of-touch remnants of the 1979 revolution, they have been accused of collectively posturing to maintain power, and deny a democratic win for reformers.

The truth is actually much more complex. Rather than a unified block, the various chief political actors in Iran have had shifiting positions in response to the election and the accompanying public unrest. While the official message coming from the top has been consistent, with the Supreme Leader continuing to urge restraint and an acceptance of the official results, behind the scenes, chaos reigns.

The following table summarizes the positions of four main institutions. While there are several addition advisory bodies, such as the “Discernment and Expediancy Council” and the Iranian Judiciary, these four institutions have taken public action.

In theory, the word of the Supreme Leader is final on issues such as these, provided that the Constitution of Iran is obeyed, and the Assembly of Experts do not take action to impeach/dismiss the Leader – something they have never done. However, the Guardian Council, which plays a significant role in the electoral process, has accepted challenges to the results by all three candidates, undermining Khameni’s proclamation of Ahmadinejad’s victory.

At the same time, Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former two-term President and rival of Ahmadinejad, has publicly declared his belief that Mousavi is the true winner, and that significant fraud was perpetrated by the Ahmadinejad camp. As Chairman of the Assembly, Rafsanjani has used his mandate of “supervision of the Supreme Leader” to challenge the official declaration.

Finally, the Majlis – the Iranian Parliament – has taken issue with the harsh treatment of demonstrators by authorities in the days after the election. While most of the chamber issued their congratulations to the incumbent immediately after the vote totals were released, many have since pulled back. While the least influential of the institutions, the Majlis has supported the opposition protests and calls for democratic redress more directly than any other.

In summary, the key question will be if the Supreme Leader can regain order among the top leaders before the political dialogue shifts towards a serious challenge to the system. If the protests can be stopped, and Ahmadinejad’s victory is seen as inevitable, many political leaders who would prefer to see reform will pull back from their opposition in order to protect themselves from retribution. If, however, public outcry and internal fighting in the regime continues following today’s proclamation, some change in the leadership, though likely minor at first, may be on the horizon.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at