Iran's supreme leader has issued a tough warning to the opposition to back down after a former president called for a referendum on the government's legitimacy, a sign of the movement's growing boldness in challenging the country's clerical rulers.
The exchanges between the opposition on one side and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his core of hardline clerical supporters on the other appeared to be heating up, reflecting how the month-long conflict over Iran's disputed presidential election is entering a new level – a struggle within the leadership itself.
The opposition has been energised by a show of support last week from former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key figure within the ruling clerical hierarchy. Yesterday, the opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi made some of his harshest comments yet at hardliners and, implicitly, Ayatollah Khamenei himself. He said they had insulted the Iranian people by claiming that the anger over the 12 June poll was fuelled by foreigners.
"You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements," Mr Mousavi said during a meeting with families of those arrested in the post-election crackdown. He called for the detainees' release. "Arrests ... won't put an end to this problem. End this game as soon as possible and return to the nation its sons."
Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds final say in all state matters in Iran, has declared the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be valid and demanded a stop to any questioning of the results.
His warning yesterday was clearly aimed at telling the opposition to stay in line – and at Mr Rafsanjani, hinting that the powerful cleric was not above punishment for his stances.
"The elite should be watchful, since they have been faced with a big test. Failing the test will cause their collapse," Mr Khamenei told a group of officials, with Mr Ahmadinejad at his side. "Anybody who drives the society toward insecurity and disorder is a hated person in the view of the Iranian nation, whoever he is."
The opposition's persistence in its campaign against Mr Ahmadinejad has become a direct challenge to the Supreme Leader, who is considered by conservatives as the representative of God's rule on Earth and has the final word to decide all political disputes.
At the weekend, a leading reformist, former president Mohammad Khatami, called for a referendum on whether Mr Ahmadinejad's government is legitimate and for a neutral body to oversee the vote.
The proposal appeared to be an attempt by the opposition to put forward a concrete demand around which supporters can rally to put pressure on the leadership.
The idea is unlikely to be accepted, but just issuing the call is a sign of increased confidence among the opposition. "I openly say now that the solution to get out of the current crisis is holding a referendum," Mr Khatami was quoted as saying.
Security forces crushed pro-Mousavi protests by hundreds of thousands of people in the weeks after the elections, arresting hundreds. At least 20 people were killed, although human rights groups believe the number is far higher.
Hardline clerics backing the Ayatollah have been telling Iranians to support the Supreme Leader and depicting the opposition as tools of foreign enemies such as Britain and the United States. Mr Khamenei repeated that argument, saying foreign media had fuelled the protests by airing "procedures for rioting".
Mr Mousavi responded sharply. While he didn't directly mention Mr Khamenei, he did give the impression of addressing him and his tone was unusually defiant.
"Who believes that they [protesters] would conspire with foreigners and sell the interests of their own country? Has our country become so mean and degraded that you attribute the huge protest movement of the nation to foreigners? Isn't this an insult to our nation?" Mr Mousavi said.Reuse content