By Michael Slackman And Nazila Fathi, www.NYTimes.com
CAIRO — The most important group of religious leaders in Iran called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.
A statement by the group, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, represents a significant, if so far symbolic, setback for the government and especially the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is supposed to be final. The government has tried to paint the opposition and its top presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, as criminals and traitors, a strategy that now becomes more difficult — if not impossible.
“This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. “Remember, they are going against an election verified and sanctified by Khamenei.”
The announcement came on a day when Mr. Moussavi released documents detailing a campaign of fraud by the current president’s supporters, and as a close associate of the supreme leader called Mr. Moussavi and former President Mohammad Khatami “foreign agents,” saying they should be treated as criminals.
The documents, published on Mr. Moussavi’s Web site, accused supporters of the president of printing more than 20 million extra ballots before the vote and handing out cash bonuses to voters.
Since the election, the bulk of the clerical establishment in the holy city of Qum, an important religious and political center of power, has remained largely silent, leaving many to wonder when, or if, the nation’s most senior religious leaders would jump into the controversy that has posed the most significant challenge to the country’s leadership since the Islamic Revolution.
With its statement Saturday, the association of clerics — formed under the leadership of the revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — came down squarely on the side of the reform movement.
The association includes reformists, but Iranian political analysts describe it as independent, and it did not support any candidate in the recent election.
The group had earlier asked for the election to be nullified because so many Iranians objected to the results, but it never directly challenged the legitimacy of the government and, by extension, the supreme leader.
The earlier statement also came before the election was certified by the country’s religious leaders, who have since said that opposition to the results must cease.
The clerics’ decision to speak up again is not itself a turning point and could fizzle under pressure from the state, which has continued to threaten its critics. Some seminaries in Qum rely on the government for funds, and Ayatollah Khamenei and the man he has declared the winner of the election, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have powerful backers there.
They also retain the support of the powerful security forces and the elite Revolutionary Guards. In addition, the country’s highest-ranking clerics have yet to speak out individually against the election results.
But the association’s latest statement does help Mr. Moussavi, Mr. Khatami and a former speaker of Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, who have been the most vocal in calling the election illegitimate and who, in their attempts to force change, have been hindered by the jailing of influential backers.
“The significance is that even within the clergy, there are many who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the election results as announced by the supreme leader,” said an Iranian political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
While the government could continue vilifying the three opposition leaders, analysts say it was highly unlikely that the leadership would use the same tactic against the clerical establishment in Qum.
The backing also came at a sensitive time for Mr. Moussavi, because the accusations that he is a foreign agent ran in a newspaper, Kayhan, that has often been used to build cases against critics of the government.
The editorial was written by Hossein Shariatmadari, who was picked by the supreme leader to run the newspaper.
The clerics’ statement chastised the leadership for failing to adequately study complaints of vote rigging and lashed out at the use of force in crushing huge public protests.
It even directly criticized the Guardian Council, the powerful group of clerics charged with certifying elections.
“Is it possible to consider the results of the election as legitimate by merely the validation of the Guardian Council?” the association said.
Perhaps more threatening to the supreme leader, the committee called on other clerics to join the fight against the government’s refusal to adequately reconsider the charges of voter fraud. The committee invoked powerful imagery, comparing the 20 protesters killed during demonstrations with the martyrs who died in the early days of the revolution and the war with Iraq, asking other clerics to save what it called “the dignity that was earned with the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs.”
The statement was posted on the association’s Web site late Saturday and carried on many other sites, including the Persian BBC, but it was impossible to reach senior clerics in the group to independently confirm its veracity.
The statement was issued after a meeting Mr. Moussavi had with the committee 10 days ago and a decision by the Guardian Council to certify the election and declare that all matters concerning the vote were closed.
But the defiance has not ended.
With heavy security on the streets, there is a forced calm. But each day, slowly, another link falls from the chain of government control. Last week, in what appeared a coordinated thrust, Mr. Moussavi, Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Khatami all called the new government illegitimate. On Saturday, Mr. Milani of Stanford said, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani met with families of those who had been arrested, another sign that he was working behind the scenes to keep the issue alive.
“I don’t ever remember in the 20 years of Khamenei’s rule where he was clearly and categorically on one side and so many clergy were on the other side,” Mr. Milani said. “This might embolden other clergy to come forward.”
The committee of clergy was formed in the 1960s. Mr. Milani said that for years, Ayatollah Khamenei also belonged to the group, and that it had developed some political clout by backing successful candidates for national office.
Many of the accusations of fraud posted on Mr. Moussavi’s Web site Saturday had been published before, but the report did give some more specific charges.
For instance, although the government had announced that two of the losing presidential contenders had received relatively few votes in their hometowns, the documents stated that some ballot boxes in those towns contained no votes for the two men.