BEIRUT — For two decades he was considered to be above the petty political squabbles, a cautious elder contemplating questions of faith and Islam while guiding his nation into the future.
But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose title of supreme leader makes him Iran's ultimate authority, has gotten his hands dirty. His decision in recent weeks to so stridently support the nation's controversial president after a disputed election has dramatically changed his image among his people, setting in motion an unpredictable series of events that could fundamentally change the Islamic Republic.
"Public respect for him has been significantly damaged," said one analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Opposing him is no longer the same as opposing God."
The venerated Khamenei has even become the target of public jokes and criticism.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "commits crimes, and the leader supports him," was a popular slogan during the riots of June 20, the day after Khamenei delivered a blistering Friday sermon in which he said that the election a week earlier had been won by Ahmadinejad.
At July 9 demonstrations, protesters mocked the ayatollah's son, Mojtaba, who many believe hopes to succeed his father.
In seeking to fill the robes of the Islamic Republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei has never been deemed to have the same level of religious credentials or oratorical skills. Over the last two decades, he has invested more in building up support among the nationalistic leaderships of the Revolutionary Guard, security apparatus and militias than in cultivating a clerical establishment that increasingly reflects the values and aspirations of modern Iran.
But his decision to tilt heavily toward raw force rather than the power of the turban has exposed a dilemma. His right to rule is based on Khomeini's theological concept of velayat-e faqih, guardianship of religious jurists, which places him as a spiritual guide hovering above the political structure. Now, for many, Khamenei has lost his aura of infallibility and is seen as just one more political infighter -- "Khamenei-jad," as one commentator in the capital joked, combining his name and that of his controversial protege.
"It's gotten so bad that people stare at me on the street thinking because I'm a cleric I must be an Ahmadinejad supporter, until I hold up my two fingers and show my support for [opposition candidate Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, and the people become happy," Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari, a reformist cleric, told a giggling crowd in a popular audiotape distributed around the Internet and on YouTube.
"Mr. Khamenei, you're making a mistake. I am committed to guardianship of the jurisprudent more than Khamenei . . . but I might have something to say to the guardian at the time," he said.
Another reformist cleric, Mohsen Kadivar, told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that Khamenei's decision to tie his fate to Ahmadinejad's disputed election win was "a great moral, but also political, mistake."
Reformist journalist Issa Saharkhiz, who was recently jailed, wrote that Khamenei "has chosen the path of tyranny which the people of Iran and the world have already thrown into the waste bin of history several times."
Few believe the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse or revolution. The military, numerous high-ranking clerics and segments of the population continue to support the absolute power of the leader.
But recent developments might make it difficult for Ahmadinejad to govern, much less implement the hard-line agenda he shares with Khamenei of tightening social restrictions and confronting the West.
"Khamenei has always ruled from a position of insecurity vis-a-vis his clerical contemporaries and also the population," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied much of Khamenei's writings. "Now he's in a situation where not only is he disliked, but he no longer elicits the same fear that he did before the election."
The threats to Khamenei no longer come from just the reformists. Even some staunch Ahmadinejad supporters said they were disheartened by Khamenei's decision to play such a key role in blessing the controversial election results. One Iranian conservative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that "it diminished the office" of the House of the Leader, the supreme leader's headquarters, meant to be revered by Shiite Muslims.
"He has lost a remarkable number of his own religious and traditional walks of people who had traditionally been supporters of the Islamic system in Iran," said Bizhan Bidabad, an Iranian intellectual in Tehran.