Tehran: Iranian hardliners on Saturday accused one of the country's most powerful clerics of encouraging opposition supporters to continue their post-election protests, a day after he criticised the ruling system's response to the disputed election.
Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's Friday sermon was a direct challenge to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hardline supporters, who have said last month's election was fair and have called on opposition supporters to drop their claims of massive vote fraud.
The protest movement and the split it has caused within the highest reaches of Iran's clerical hierarchy have presented Khamenei with the country's greatest challenge since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Hardliners like Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi struck back at Rafsanjani on Saturday, saying his speech would endanger the country by inciting supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to take to the streets as they did in June by the hundreds of thousands to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election. Mousavi claims to have won the vote.
"The leader (Khamenei) removed the threat of riots, but Mr. Rafsanjani is again seeking to provoke the danger," Yazdi was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Thousands of protesters clashed with police on Friday after Rafsanjani's sermon at Tehran University in the biggest opposition show of strength in weeks. Pro-government Basiji militiamen charged the crowd on motorcycles wielding batons and fired volleys of tear gas, using the kind of violent repression that has been common. Hundreds have been arrested since the June 12 election and at least 20 killed.
Rafsanjani, who broke his silence for the first time since the election, denounced the government's violent crackdown against protesters and demanded the release of those detained. Instead of suppression, he said the government should work to address the concerns Iranians have over the legitimacy of the vote.
Hossein Shariatmadari, a top aide to Khamenei and director of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, said Rafsanjani should have condemned the street riots that followed the election.
"On the contrary, he implicitly, if not openly, supported lawbreakers," Shariatmadari said in an editorial Saturday. "Rafsanjani's remarks, in many cases, were a repeat of the same norm-breaking slogans and paved the way for (anti-government protests)."
Shariatmadari repeated the claims made by Khamenei and other hard-liners that the protest movement was being fuelled by foreign countries hoping to spark a revolution and topple Iran's Islamic system — a charge the US and others have denied.
The criticism of Rafsanjani also revealed a fundamental split between many hard-liners and reformists over the importance of democracy in Iran's system. People like Yazdi believe the legitimacy of the Islamic regime comes from God, not from democratic elections.
"People's support doesn't bring legitimacy, but popularity," said Yazdi.
In contrast, tears welled up in Rafsanjani's eyes during his sermon as he spoke of how Islam's Prophet Muhammad "respected the rights" of his people and spoke about the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "who always said that if the system is not backed by the people, nothing would stand."
As Rafsanjani was delivering his Friday prayer sermon, worshippers chanted "azadi, azadi," Persian for "freedom." Mousavi sat among the worshippers, attending the country's main prayer service for the first time since the turmoil began.
Many of those gathered wore headbands or wristbands in his campaign colour green, or had green prayer rugs, crowding the former soccer field where prayers are held and spilling into nearby streets. Opposition supporters chanted "death to the dictator, a reference to Ahmadinejad, and called on the President to resign.
First Published: Sunday, July 19, 2009, 13:04