Once he decided to publicly address the antiestablishment unrest that's been roiling Iran since late last month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on January 2 blamed foreign "enemies."
But reports claiming that an ultra-hard-line cleric and Khamenei ally in Iran's fundamentalist heartland has been summoned by the powerful National Security Council suggested that some elements of Iran's leadership think the initial cause might lie closer to home.
The cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, is a staunch critic of President Hassan Rohani, who came to power and won reelection last year pressing for mild social reforms and an opening up of Iranian society.
The New York Times on January 2 quoted an unnamed Iranian security official as confirming that Alamolhoda had been summoned by Supreme National Security Council to explain his role in the original protest.
Alamolhoda's office has dismissed the reports of his summoning as "rumors," many of them spread on social media, and warned that he will take legal action against anyone spreading such "lies."
Familiar to many Iranians, Alamolhoda is Khamenei's representative and leads Friday Prayers in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, where a protest began on December 28 over rising prices before the unrest spread to the rest of the country.
Some of the protesters in Mashhad were said to have chanted "Death To Rohani!" while calling on the president to step down, blaming him for a failure to improve the economy despite a 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers that eased economic sanctions against Iran. But there were also slogans that targeted Tehran's international policies, including its military and materiel support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while calling on the country’s leaders to focus on the Iranians.
Now affecting more than 90 cities and towns, according to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, the street protests are the biggest since a fiercely disputed presidential election in 2009 sent regime critics into the streets before a brutal security crackdown that included mass arrests, show trials, and allegations of torture and disappearances.
Alamolhoda is the father-in-law of Ebrahim Raisi, who heads one of Iran’s richest state foundations and was Rohani's leading conservative rival in the May presidential race, in which Rohani won a second four-year term.
Speaking last week, Alamolhoda defended the people's right to protest while saying that a few people had taken advantage of the protests against rising prices to challenge Iran’s role in regional conflicts.
"Some people had come to express their demands," Alamolhoda was quoted as saying by Iranian media, "but suddenly, in a crowd of hundreds, a small group that did not exceed 50 shouted deviant and horrendous slogans such as, 'Let go of Palestine!' 'Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I’d give my life [only] for Iran.'"
Rohani allies, including Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, had suggested that Rohani's detractors might have triggered protests that soon got beyond their control.
"Those who are behind such events will burn their own fingers," Jahangiri was quoted as saying on December 30.
WATCH: protesters took to the streets of the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad and other towns on December 28 to voice their anger over high prices and unemployment.
Paris-based Iranian political analyst Morteza Kazemian said it is difficult to determine the role, if any, that Alamolhoda played in the events in Mashhad. But he speculated that any protest would have been unlikely without the involvement of hard-liners who enjoy Alamolhoda's support.
"There are reliable reports suggesting that the government's opponents in Mashhad, who have a strong base in the city because of the presence of Alamolhoda and also Raisi as the head of Astan Quds Foundation, were the starting point for the protest in the city, even though those who are unhappy with the economic situation, including the unemployed, quickly joined the protest," Kazemian told RFE/RL. "But it's very hard to talk about the role of Alamolhoda, even though reports suggested that he received a warning from the National Security Council."
There has always been a closed political [atmosphere] in Mashhad, but it has gotten worse under Alamolhoda."-- Analyst Morteza Kazemian
Mashhad appeared to have become a key location recently for hard-liners opposing Rohani and his policies.
Kazemian went so far as to call it "the most important base of the hard-liners in Iran."
"There has always been a closed political [atmosphere] in Mashhad, but it has gotten worse under Alamolhoda," Kazemian said.
Alamolhoda has burnished his conservative brand by canceling concerts in Mashhad promoted by Rohani’s government.
Speaking last week, Alamolhoda said that "concerts are not [about] art and music. It's vulgar."
"When a singer sings and musicians play music, boys and girls become excited and shout, and it results in a lot of corruption," he said.
Alamolhoda has also said in the past that Iranians should forcibly be guided to heaven, if necessary.
"We will stand against all of those preventing people from reaching heaven with all of our force, not only with a whip," Alamolhoda said in 2014 in reaction to comments by Rohani, who campaigned the previous year in part on calls for less official intervention in people's lives.
Alamolhoda has also said that Mashhad -- home to the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth imam in the beliefs of Twelver Shi'a -- is a city for religious pilgrimage but not "a tourist center or entertainment attraction for revelry."
"Do you want to hold a concert? Go live somewhere else. Why are you hollering and haggling here?" he once said.
Alamolhoda also routinely warns of the dangers of cyberspace while calling for more censorship. In June, he said that "not managing and not restricting the Internet will turn it into a tool for the toppling of Islam and damaging the Prophet Muhammad."
In a Tehran speech in 2009, Alamolhoda referred to political opponents of Khamenei as belonging to the "party of Satan."
He also suggested that opposition leaders should be sentenced to death.