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Battle of Wills Firms Up in Iran

Iran's Supreme Leader delivered a blunt message to protestors during Friday prayers: your man lost the presidential election, I support the winner, get over it. And to the opposition leaders he was equally clear: call off the protests or be held responsible for the consequences. He has raised the stakes in an already volatile situation.

The protesters' chants in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere have been aimed at the man they claim unfairly won the Iranian presidential election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But analysts say that in his Friday prayers sermon, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's Supreme Leader, reframed the electoral debate.

He came down squarely on the side of the hardline president, saying the vote was fair and that his views are closer to those of Mr. Ahmadinejad in both foreign and domestic policy.

"Political protection"

Reva Bhalla, Iran affairs analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says that in doing so, Khamenei is placing the president under his political protection.

"Now the Supreme Leader's made it clear," said Bhalla. "It's not just about the president. Now if you continue any of these protests, you're facing off against the Supreme Leader. So that takes it to a whole other level. So now they [the opposition] have to go back to the drawing board and see how far they really want to take this.

By the government's account, incumbent President Ahmadinejad beat out his main rival, reformist former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a margin of nearly two-to-one. Two other candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezaei, came in a very distant third and fourth.

The protesters claim widespread fraud and have taken to the streets nearly every day since the June 12 election to demand that the election be annulled and a new vote held. Mousavi and other opposition leaders have backed that call.

However, says Reva Bhalla, men like Mousavi are still establishment figures. She says that may make them reluctant to endanger their own positions by directly confronting the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader. But to turn away now, she says, could also disillusion their followers.

"There's a huge gap between Mousavi, Karroubi, Rezaie, all the people at the top who are opposing the president, and many of the protesters on the street," said Bhalla. "You have to remember that the agenda of both are very different."

"And Mousavi in particular is not as radical as many of his supporters want him to be. He's not willing to break with the state. Many of the people he's working with, like Rafsanjani [former Iranian President Ali Akbar Ragsanjani], are not necessarily ready to break with the state. They want to maintain the core of the Islamic Republic," she added.

Greatest political crisis

The electoral controversy has placed Iran in its greatest political crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But analysts point out that this is a very different situation. Ken Katzman, Iran affairs analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the current electoral protests do not appear to be drawing in more cross-sections of the Iranian population.

"What I'm looking for as a political scientist is, are new groups joining this protest movement? Are laborers going on strike, are poor people who may have been Ahmadinejad voters joining in, are people coming in from the villages to join this thing? And I'm not seeing that. And I think at some point the protesters to continue their momentum have to show that they're bringing in new segments of society to sustain this movement," he said.

Katzman says the government's exit strategy appears to be to just wait the protesters out.

"I think the way out is to try to tire out the protesters and to in essence show them, 'hey guys, not everybody in Iran is joining you here," he said. "You can continue to march if you want to - we're not going to interfere, we're not going to use violence - but you're not getting anywhere.' I think that's the exit strategy Khamenei and company are pursuing right now.

People will be watching closely to see what the verdict is of the Guardian Council, which has been asked to review selected portions of the vote but not the entire election. Reva Bhalla says the protestors should not expect any surprises.

"I don't think we're going to see a major challenge against the Supreme Leader, especially now that he's taken this strong stance," she said. "The Guardian Council will give its verdict, and I don't think anybody expects them to come out and say, we'll hold a new election and annul the results. I think that's very unlikely. So once that verdict is given, the call will be made to accept this and move on. And those that don't will be crushed with force."

There have been sporadic attacks on demonstrators by police and the hardline Basij militia, and at least seven protestors have been killed. But analysts warn that any larger, Tiananmen Square-type crackdown would be far bloodier, especially if the government brings in squads of Revolutionary Guards.