The about-face done by Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—first blessing the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's election then opening an inquiry into vote fraud yesterday—was a rare misstep for the shadowy, usually cautious ayatollah, the New York Times reports, and may have done substantial damage to his reputation, as well as incited protesters. "Now the myth that there is a leader up there whose power is unquestionable is broken," one Iranian author tells the Times.
The ayatollah controls the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, and public communications, and few are suggesting that his iron grip on the country's levers of powers is seriously weakened. But the election and his response have opened divisions among the clerical elite, and Khamenei faces a difficult choice. Either he allows the protests to continue and chip away at his authority, or he resorts to violence—and destroys any remaining pretense of a popular mandate for the Islamic Republic.