A group of Iranian clerics has issued an anonymous letter calling Iran's supreme leader a dictator and demanding his removal, the latest and perhaps strongest rhetorical attack on him yet in the country's post-election turmoil.
While the impact of the clerics' letter, posted late Saturday on opposition Web sites, may have been diluted by the withholding of their signatures, two Iranian experts vouched for its authenticity. Its publication followed other unusual verbal attacks on the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent days.
Last week, a group of former lawmakers issued their own letter calling his qualifications into question. A day earlier, a member of the state body empowered to dismiss Khamenei called for an "emergency meeting" to address criticisms.
The letters do not pose any real threat to Khamenei, who retains the loyalty of the security services and most of the political elite. The clerical establishment is heavily dependent on him, and scarcely any member would dare to challenge him openly.
Still, the verbal attacks illustrate the erosion of a powerful taboo. Long unquestioned, Khamenei's status as a neutral arbiter and Islamic figurehead have suffered in the weeks since he blessed the June 12 presidential election, which many Iranians believe was rigged. In recent days the phrase "death to Khamenei" has begun appearing in graffiti on Tehran walls.
In their 11-page letter, the clerics blamed Khamenei for the violence after the elections, in which dozens of people were killed. They accused him of turning the Revolutionary Guards into "his own private guard, and the media into an instrument to defend and propagate him."
The clerics wrote that fear had made it impossible for them to sign their names: "There is such a dictatorship that we, as defenders of religion who are also close to public officials, have to practice Taqieh," a reference to a Shiite practice of lying or concealment for expediency.
On Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the West for the mass protests that followed his re-election and authorities released a French researcher from prison into the custody of diplomats.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.