If Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council had hoped to ride out the anger over the rigged presidential election, they didn’t figure on Qum.  The association of Islamic leaders in the most important religious city in Iran have declared the election illegitimate, which threatens to undermine the credibility of the Khamenei regime’s claim to divine direction.  If the clerics of Iran bolt, what does Khamenei have left?

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.”

This puts Khamenei in a corner.  He has repeatedly claimed that the election results were divinely authored, putting his religious credibility on the line to silence opposition.  Khamenei has, through surrogates, accused Mousavi and other protesters of being foreign agents, enemies of the Islamic Republic that he claims authority from Allah to run.  If the religious clerics that support that divine authority suddenly switch sides and accuse Khamenei and his Guardian Council of imposing illegitimate results on the nation, what does that do to his authority?

In fact, this is an escalation from Qum.  They had earlier asked the regime to nullify the results in order to restore order and give an opportunity for calm, but hadn’t given a judgment on the election itself. Their latest statement abandons any effort to calm the waters, which makes this step more ominous for Khamenei.  They have taken sides — and they have joined the opposition.

That gives other clerics an opportunity to go public with their own opposition to the regime.  Khamenei cannot keep using the “foreign agents” smear in order to discredit everyone.  If all of the clerics outside the GC and Khamenei assert that the Supreme Leader acts illegitimately, then the only thing left to Khamenei is force of arms.  That may be enough in the short run, but the writing on the wall for Khamenei and his regime has already appeared in Qum.