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The most important group of religious leaders in Iran has called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate, 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.
The statement by 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."
This despite earlier polls showing very strong support for the opposition candidates, and after the vote, this support has been proven by thousands taking to the street calling for their votes to be counted.
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.
With its statement Saturday, the association of clerics came down squarely on the side of the reform movement.