Although Iran's postelection protests appeared crushed for now by brutal violence, a giant theological chasm has opened among Iran's Shiite clerics – one that also gives President Obama a safe opportunity to influence Iran's course.
Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the weakest reed in Iran's complex system of government has been the claim of a supreme leader with absolute political authority based on his Islamic credentials. It is an idea not accepted by the 90 percent of the world's Muslims who are Sunni. And it is rejected outside Iran in other Shiite strongholds, such as in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon and in Iraq.
Known in Arabic as velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih (guardian or the jurist), this concocted religious doctrine, enshrined in Iran's Constitution, was recently rejected by a leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeric, who was once the designated successor to the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"Even the prophet did not have absolute velayat-e faqih," Mr. Montazeric stated earlier this year in open defiance of Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Montazeric fell out of favor with Khomeini just before his death in 1989, but is still influential.)
This challenge to one-man rule is also championed by Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a powerful former president and the head of the 86-member Assembly of Experts which, in theory, oversees the office of the supreme leader. He reportedly has sought recently to form an alternative political rule in Iran to be run by a collective religious leadership making day-to-day decisions.
That concept of a committee of clerics ruling Iran instead of a supreme leader may not be much of a step toward fuller democracy with a separation of religion and state. And it won't resolve the theological dispute over a supreme political leader among Shiites.
But at the least, it is a small step toward the common Shiite notion of a small number of grand ayatollahs in the faith sticking to their role as simply givers of religious rulings and as models of good behavior.
With his rule as Iran's ultimate arbiter under threat, Mr. Khamenei moved swiftly last week to try to consolidate his support among Iran's clerical bodies. The Assembly of Experts, for instance, signaled its confidence last Thursday for his "sagacious directions."
But the debate over a supreme leader may not fade. There are signs in Iran of increasing popularity for Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shiite figure in Iraq. Since the 2003 US invasion, he has supported a democracy that is run by secular leaders and inclusive of all faiths. (The Shiite spiritual leader in Lebanon, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, also does not see himself as a political leader.)
An Iranian by birth, Mr. Sistani holds much sway over the clerical establishment in Iran's most religious city, Qom. And he lives in the Iraqi city of Najaf, the most holy of Shiite sites and a popular pilgrimage for Iranians.
If he wants to send a subtle signal to Iranian dissidents, Mr. Obama could simply praise Sistani's calming, background role as the top ayatollah in helping Iraq's secular democracy.
He could also point out, as many Shiite leaders have warned, that Islam's best protection is not to run a government for fear it would harm the religion.
Iran's clerical rule and its support of terrorism have certainly harmed Islam over the past three decades. Perhaps that is one reason why so many Iranians took to the streets in opposition to an election that they suspect did not reflect their will.
Obama has a chance to side with them now by siding with Sistani and the mainstream in Shiite Islam.