Ayatollah turns fire on Iran's dissidents

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The Independent Online
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, yesterday blasted dissidents who have questioned his authority as "enemy agents" and said they would be prosecuted with the full force of the law.

Speaking out for the first time in the row, Khamenei urged Iranians to refrain from taking the law into their own hands and to cease demonstrations denouncing the most prominent dissident, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

"If what they [dissidents] have done is illegal, which it is; if it is treason against the people, which it is - then executive and judicial officials should carry out their duty against these individuals ..." Khamenei said in a speech carried on state radio and television. "And I am informed that they are going to carry it out and that there will be no laxity. I ask everyone to stop the marches. Of course speakers and writers should continue to clear up the people's minds," Khamenei said. "I urge everyone not to commit any illegal acts ... "

Khamenei was apparently referring to attacks last week by demonstrators on the offices of Montazeri and another prominent critic, Ayatollah Ahmad Azari Qomi, in the Shi'ite Moslem holy city of Qom, 75 miles south of Tehran. Montazeri has questioned Khamenei's qualification to become the spiritual guide of all the world's Shi'ite Moslems in addition to being Iran's supreme political leader.

The controversy erupted last week into one of Iran's most violent demonstrations in recent years. Police used tear gas to disperse pro-Khamenei demonstrators in Qom.

Montazeri, 75, has been Iran's most prominent dissident since founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dismissed him as his designated successor shortly before his death in 1989. Montazeri had criticised government policies including the treatment of political prisoners.

Some moderate newspapers have said in-fighting and daily marches could mar Iran's hosting of a summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference next month.

Speaking to members of the volunteer Basij militia, Khamenei said Iran's enemies and foreign media had tried to portray the row as a fully-fledged factional dispute, but reiterated that Iranian officials were united despite some differences.

He added that the dissidents "were enemy agents, even though they might not be conscious of it". But he urged Iranians not to lose perspective of Iran's real enemies.

"You should get to know who the enemy is. World arrogance is the enemy, America is the enemy, the Zionists are the enemy," Khamenei said.

He praised moderate President Mohammad Khatami for dissipating rumours of a split over power-sharing by clearly sticking to the law. The debate over Khamenei's powers has sharpened since Khatami defeated conservative candidates backed by the clerical establishment in May polls.

Under Iran's constitution, the supreme leader is the top state authority. He has absolute power over all government institutions.

Criticism of Khamenei's powers has also come from left-wing Islamists close to Khatami, and a liberal Muslim opposition group. The new president has repeatedly pledged allegiance to the supreme leader and refused to be drawn into the debate.