His arm out-thrust, Ali Khamenei, Iran's paramount leader, told thousands of Friday worshipers at Teheran University that post-election unrest in his country was traceable to the machinations of the evil Zionist-owned media and the BBC Persian-language service. Iran's June 12 elections, the ayatollah declared, were pure, honest - epic even. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's triumph was a political earthquake for Iran's enemies, but a celebration for its friends. As the multitude chanted, "Death to Israel," Khamenei indignantly declared that "the Islamic Republic would not cheat, and would not betray the vote of the people." How, he asked, could 11 million votes be stolen? Clumsily, it would appear. State television has been airing confessions of plotters purportedly paid to destabilize the regime. Apologists for the regime said Iran's elections were meaningful even if all the candidates had been handpicked. It turns out, however, that they were far more meaningful than the regime had intended. Whatever his original intentions, Mir Hossein Mousavi now represents something bigger than a "soft" alternative to Ahmadinejad. His ascendency would most likely be a good thing for Iran and the world, even if no one really understands the intentions of the powerful counter-elite behind him. In challenging Khamenei after he sanctified the election results, these counter-elites are exposing a serious split in the political system, undermining its legitimacy. They might still want to reform, rather than overturn the system. But the people may have their own ideas. No one knows if there is any turning back after Mousavi put out the word that his followers should hold a general strike in case of his arrest. Plainly, the regime hopes that tear gas and bullets will dampen down the protesters' fervor. We shall see. TRYING TO understand what's really happening inside Iran's leadership elite recalls the difficulties encountered by Kremlinologists endeavoring to decipher the inner workings of the Soviet politburo. Can it be that Khamenei, having initially sanctioned his presidential challenge, took a second look at Mousavi and saw the image of Mikhail Gorbachev, someone who would "reform" the Islamic Revolution beyond recognition - and therefore chose the safer path of Ahmadinejad? Khamenei was said to fear that a Mousavi victory would mean loss of control over the nomenklatura - the most influential jobs in the country. Even Israeli intelligence appears somewhat at a loss. Mossad chief Meir Dagan predicted that the anti-Ahmadinejad protests would fizzle out before the weekend. In fact, at least 13 protesters were killed in clashes on Saturday; demonstrations were continuing yesterday, and popular sentiment had escalated into blatant, opposition to the entire regime. (Dagan also reportedly predicted that Iran would not have an atom bomb to hurl at Israel until 2014 - significantly later than other Israeli forecasts. What he didn't say is that Iran could achieve the very same, worrying capabilities as North Korea - detonating an underground nuclear device - far, far sooner.) Given its geography, resources and culture, Iran will remain a regional player no matter what. But when all this is over, will it still be a patron of Hizbullah and Hamas; the state champion of Islamic extremism, and the prime demonizer of Israel? PRESIDENT BARACK Obama came into office pledging to rectify the dysfunctional Iranian-US relationship. But Iran's post-election turmoil may have upended his plans to do business with Khamenei. He must now be wondering what good it would do to negotiate with a leadership so brazen as to steal an already rigged "election." Over the weekend, Obama warned the regime that the world was watching, and urged it "to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people." But for all his declared commitment in Cairo to reform and democracy, Obama has refrained from overt support of the courageous Iranian citizenry protesting - and dying - for precisely these things. If Iranians prove ready to persist, their terrible sacrifices notwithstanding, the US and EU will have little choice but to press for new, internationally monitored elections - and, if this demand goes unanswered, to hold out the possibility of "de-recognizing" the regime. That would place Iran in the same position as Ukraine in 2004, during the Orange Revolution. That regime was isolated and, ultimately, forced from power.