A group of Iran's reformist deputies banned from Friday's parliamentary elections have openly challenged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, in a letter implying he played a partisan role in the disqualification of more than 2,000 candidates.
The letter clearly breaks a convention within the Islamic Republic that the supreme leader, whose constitutional authority derives from God, should not be publicly criticised.
Earlier in the week, Mohammad Reza Khatami, one of the 77 excluded deputies and leader of Mosharekate, the largest reformist party, suggested in an interview with the FT that the leader was part of the conservative camp.
The six-page letter to Mr Khamenei, sent on Monday and leaked yesterday, questions his motives in asking the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog, to review all cases after it banned 3,600 candidates.
"Has the Guardian Council become so bold that it can ignore the supreme leader's clear order?" it asks. "Or, as some allege these days, are you saying one thing publicly while [privately] permitting the council to implement its plan for [mass] disqualifications?"
The letter challenges Mr Khamenei over a speech he made last week in Qazvin, a town north-west of Tehran, when he insinuated there were foreign influences among the reformers.
"You repeatedly mentioned the role of 'infiltrators' in your latest speech in Qazvin, without presenting a single piece of proof. What sort of infiltrators are these that our intelligence services cannot find?"
The letter then makes a pun in Farsi with the word gardankuloft, which means both "bullies" and "people with thick necks".
"You repeatedly mentioned bullies in your speech. Who are these bullies? The deputies who protest against the disqualifications, or the Guardian Council that ignores the rights of people in the election? There is nothing in the constitution that permits the disqualification of people with thick necks."
In content and tone, the letter goes beyond one sent last year to the leader by 135 deputies asking him to choose between democracy and dictatorship when the Guardian Council blocked two parliamentary bills.
At least one newspaper, the reformist Yas-e No, confirmed last night it would publish the letter unless ordered not to do so by the Supreme Council for National Security.
"This is a new phase, where the deputies tell the people that the problem is not the Guardian Council but somewhere else," said Akbar Montajebi, a political correspondent for Yas-e No. "They are directly criticising the leader."
"For sure, the deputies will be dealt with sooner or later, but probably after the election," said Mr Montajebi. "In the short term, the right wing may be confused. They won't want trouble during the campaign but if they don't arrest the deputies they will hugely disappoint their hardline followers." See Editorial Comment