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Iran's supreme leader softens accusations

CAIRO — Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears to have undercut President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attempt to convict dozens of former government officials, journalists and academics of collaborating with the West to overthrow the government, saying a connection had not been proven.

But Khamenei seems to have stood by the government's position that foreign forces orchestrated the post-election protests that gripped the country after Ahmadinejad claimed a landslide victory in the disputed presidential election in June.

"I don't accuse the leaders of the recent incidents of being affiliated with foreign countries, including the U.S. and Britain, since the issue has not been proven for me," Khamenei said in a meeting with a group of students in Tehran on Wednesday. "But there is no doubt that the events were planned, no matter whether their leaders knew it or not."

The comments, while appearing to throw the brakes on the most damaging charges against those under arrest, fit neatly with Khamenei's track record of moving to reinforce his authority by cultivating divisions between factions. It also appeared to be a first step to try to reclaim a position as the fair arbiter, a standing damaged by his handling of the election dispute.

While he has shown no support for rescuing the reform movement from its current political impotence, he has alternated allegiances within the hard-line factions, nurturing tension between various arms of the state.

He appointed Sadeq Larijani, a member of the hard-line camp who is an adversary of the president, as head of the judiciary. He appointed a cleric, Kazem Sedighi, who is also a rival of the president, as a new leader of Friday Prayer.

"Khamenei has always ruled from a position of insecurity," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"He's wary of capable, independent-minded people who could one day challenge his authority, and has tried to ensure his pre-eminence by selecting subordinates who are absolutely loyal to him but opposed to one another."

Khamenei's comments were the latest in a series steps that appeared aimed at slowing Ahmadinejad's drive to consolidate power and define members of the reform movement as enemies of the state. There is even the suggestion, some political analysts said, that the supreme leader has begun to grow weary of Ahmadinejad.