CAIRO — The most important group of religious leaders in Iran has called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate, an act of defiance against the country's supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country's clerical establishment.
The statement by the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult — if not impossible.
"This crack in the clerical establishment and the fact they are siding with the people and Mousavi in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic," said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University.
Since the election, the bulk of the clerical establishment in the holy city of Qum, an important religious and political center of power, has remained largely silent, leaving many to wonder when, or if, the nation's most senior religious leaders would jump into the events that have posed the most significant challenge to the country's leadership since the Islamic Revolution.
With its statement on Saturday, the association of clerics — formed under the leadership of the revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — came down squarely on the side of the reform movement.
Khamenei has declared hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the June 12 election.
But the clerics' statement called for the election results to be thrown out and chastised the leadership for failing to adequately study complaints of vote rigging.