Adrian Hamilton: Power in Iran - a labyrinthine system

The regime in Iran is now desperately – and so far uncertainly – playing for time while it tries to work out just what is happening in the country and the forces that are now engulfing it. The Council of Guardians has agreed to a recount of the disputed results. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was seen off for the day to a summit in Russia. Talks have been opened up with the main opposition leaders. The foreign press has been effectively confined to barracks. The authorities have warned against demonstrations but appear to have held back from trying to suppress them by force.

Is this the calm before the authorities marshal their forces to impose a crackdown à la Tiananmen Square? Or is it the reflection of a system now divided within itself and an establishment losing control of the situation.

The simple answer is that nobody knows and nobody can know until the strength of feeling around the country, on all sides, becomes clear. The size of the popular outpourings and the fact that they have persisted and seem to be spreading to other cities, has taken the authorities by surprise and also given an opportunity for Ahmadinejad's enemies within the establishment to bare their teeth.

These include Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and chairman of the important Assembly of Experts, rumoured to be in Qom gathering support to overturn the election result; Ali Larijani, the Speaker of parliament (the Majlis) who was a rival to Ahmadinejad in the presidential election of 2005 and has come out to challenge the results of the election; and Mohsen Rezai, the Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who stood against the President in these elections to garner only 680,000 officially counted votes.

Not for nothing is Iran home to one of the highest number of bloggers per head of population in the world. Tehran is thick with rumours of plots and counter-plots. Even the position of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Ruler, is said to be vulnerable.

The truth has probably a lot less to do with plotting and a lot more to do with simple confusion. Ahmadinejad may have been absent yesterday but he is far from powerless. A populist who has made his reputation attacking the corruption of the old clerical establishment, he can count not just on the votes of the rural majority but also the more formidable powers of the veterans of the Iran-Iraq war (in which he served) and the feared volunteer paramilitary forces of the Basiji.

Behind the scenes stands the ambiguous figure of Ayatollah Khamenei, the religious head of the country, who has so far supported Ahmadinejad and the forces of the hardliners but is ultimately charged with keeping the country whole and balancing the forces surrounding him. Should the pressures of change prove too great, he is perfectly capable of throwing the country's President overboard in the interests of unity just as he could give in to hardline advice and go for a clampdown.

For the moment, Khamenei will probably temporise, seeking to treat with the opposition candidates by offering concessions on the recount in the hope that Mirhossein Mousavi can call his followers to order and accept Ahmadinejad's victory, even if by a reduced majority. But that assumes the reformists will agree to accept that result and that Ahmadinejad will agree to any compromise.

It also assumes that the hardline forces will continue to hold back and that the students and radicals in the reform movement, having sensed change, will not accelerate their efforts to achieve it. And of that no one for the moment can be certain.