The comments are frankly stunning.
"No one in their right mind can believe" the official results from Friday's contest, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri said of the landslide victory claimed by Ahmadinejad. Montazeri accused the regime of handling Mousavi's charges of fraud and the massive protests of his backers "in the worst way possible."
"A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy," he declared in comments on his official Web site. "I ask the police and army personals (personnel) not to 'sell their religion,' and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before God."
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Montazeri's pointed public comments provided fresh evidence that a serious rift has opened at the top of Iran's powerful religious hierarchy after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed the official election results and the harsh crackdown against the opposition.
A leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution who's often feuded with Khamenei and once vied with him for the supreme leader's position, Montazeri accused the government of attacking "the children of the people with astonishing violence" and "attempting a purge, arresting intellectuals, political opponents and scientifics."
"He is questioning the legitimacy of the election and also questioning the legitimacy of (Khamenei's) leadership, and this is the heart of the political battle in Iran," said Mehdi Noorbaksh, an associate professor of international affairs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. "This is very significant. This is huge support for Mousavi and the demonstrators on the reformists' side."
In an attempt to defuse the crisis, the 12-member Guardian Council, part of the ruling theocracy, announced that it would conduct a partial recount of the balloting, which the government said Ahmadinejad won with more than 24 million votes, to 13 million for Mousavi.
Government-funded Press TV, an English-language news service, reported that at a meeting Tuesday with the council and the candidates' representatives, Khamenei said a recount could take place if an investigation found there was a need for one.
"Those in charge of supervising the elections are always trustworthy people, but this should not prevent an investigation into possible problems and clarifying the truth," he was quoted as saying.
The recount announcement, however, didn't appease Mousavi, reform presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi or their supporters. Tens of thousands filled the streets of Tehran for a fourth day carrying signs and wearing scarves and ribbons of Mousavi's trademark color of green to demand that the results be annulled.
"We are ready to recount those boxes that some presidential candidates claim to have been cheated," council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei told Iranian journalists. Despite a lapsed deadline for complaints, "the body is ready to receive complaints and probe into the issue and build more confidence," he said.
It wasn't clear how many ballot boxes -- or which ones -- would be recounted. Mousavi has demanded an annulment of the vote.
It bears reminding that when Ayotollah Sayeed Ali Khamenei was selected as the second Supreme Leader, he jumped over more senior clerics. At the time, Khamenei was described as "a dedicated opponent of reform, more political hack than revered theologian." And though he had served as President, Khamenei did not a have power base in the ulema. Thus over his now two decades in power, he has sought to cultivate and deepen his ties with the Iranian military and the militias such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the basij militias under its control in an effort to shore up a power base. Still, these are not monolithic institutions.