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A reformist in conservative clothing?

If hard-liners are routed in today's elections, will 'God's deputy on earth' lose his title?

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Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, is often dismissed by Western observers as an unrepentant archconservative. He is portrayed as shoring up the leaking ship of the 21-year-old Islamic Revolution at any cost, while blocking liberal reforms.

But others in Iran depict a leader who oscillates between the competing reform and hard-line camps, to strike a balance to propel Iran into the 21st century with its Islamic nature intact.

"When his own reputation is on the line, he comes down on the side of the reformers, to keep some credibility with the people," says an Asian diplomat in Tehran. "But when he expects a right-wing backlash, he backs down."

In Iran's charged political atmosphere - Iranians begin a crucial parliamentary vote today that is likely to tip the balance of power against hard-liners - every move of the powerful cleric is scrutinized all the more closely.

The way a recent crisis was defused by Mr. Khamenei - whose official title means "God's Deputy on Earth" to Iran's Shiite Muslims - provides a rare glimpse into the enigmatic nature of the man at the heart of Iran's Islamic regime.

A leading theologian claimed that a former head of the CIA had visited Iran "with a suitcase full of money," to pay reformist journalists for criticizing the regime.

Two cartoons appeared in reformist newspapers lampooning the cleric, prompting a three-day sit-in by theology students at the Azam mosque in Qom, the stronghold of conservative clerics. They demanded the resignation of the information minister - appointed by the reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami - for permitting "insults to Islam."

The mosque rang with the cry: "Death to the mercenary pen pushers!"

Critical as the gray-bearded, bespectacled Khamenei has been of the reform movement in the past - declaring in December that "those in charge of it inside the country are enemies" - he sent an envoy to Qom with a different message.

"The supreme leader says: 'For the time being this is enough,' " the envoy said. The protesters went home - but it was a risky move for Khamenei.

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