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Iran's seat of theocratic power

The role of the supreme leader has changed, but Iran's top cleric, Ayatollah Khamenei, still holds sway. How the political system in Tehran works, and who will determine what comes next.

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That led to grumblings among more reform-minded segments of Iran's political elite.

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"Khamenei and the conservatives have an elite problem," says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We know that a number of individuals in the religious establishment have some reservations about what's been going on, and that leaves him very, very vulnerable in the long term."

"I think he'll prevail in the short term, but he's left with a narrow base – the Republican Guards, conservative clerics, and whatever portion of the country that sees Ahmadinejad as representative of their ideals," she continues. "With those conditions, I think it's impossible for him to maintain that power in the long term. But how long can the short term last?"

"It's not really 'hard-liners versus reformists' right now; it's more, 'Do you think the regime should be allowed to act arbitrarily or not,' " says Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East and expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "There's a strain of Khomeini-ism that's Nixonian, that believes if the leader does something, then it's legal. But many Iranians – and many religious Iranians – are attached to the rule of law."

Who are the key proponents of change?

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the centrist who says the election was stolen from him, was the figure around whom protesters rallied after the election. It's important to remember that he isn't exactly a Jeffersonian democrat waiting in the wings, however.

Mr. Mousavi was an ardent supporter of Khomeini at the time of the revolution, and served as prime minister under him for eight years in the 1980s (the premiership was then folded into the presidency). While Mousavi has strong support in Iran, probably more important in coming months will be the roles and attitudes of popular clerics, some of whom believe the power of the supreme leader should be reduced.

Among these men is Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, an influential Islamic scholar in the holy city of Qom, who was, at one time, Khomeini's designated successor but was pushed aside as he began to give sermons calling for more political openness in Iran, particularly the legalization of political parties. He has been highly critical of the government since the election, saying in a statement that "no one in their right mind" would believe the official results.

He also delivered a pointed attack on denying free expression of political rights, practically calling it un-­Islamic. The state "should not suppress critical views [and] I fear this will lead people to lose faith in Islam."

Another key figure is former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential reformist cleric who heads the Assembly of Experts. He publicly jousted with Ahmadinejad in the run-up to the presidential election after the president accused him of corruption; his daughter was arrested and held for a few days after the election.

"Rafsanjani has been palpable by his absence," says Ms. Maloney. "What is he doing behind the scenes? What are some of the other individuals that have some reservations about Ahmadinejad doing? These are the important questions, and we don't have good information yet."