Tens of thousands of Iranians attended Friday prayers at Tehran University and the audience roared with shouts of “freedom!” as leading cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani obliquely criticized the government for its crackdown on protesters.
Outside, a small group of pro-democracy protesters were beaten by police and the Basiji militia that have come to act as the primary muscle on Tehran's streets for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his ally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who many Iranians believe unfairly won last month’s presidential election. The Associated Press reported that 15 protesters were arrested.
But the real fireworks were inside the prayer venue, where the Mr. Rafsanjani, an influential former president and major financial supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, delivered his first Friday sermon since the election, which was carried live on national radio.
Friday is the holiest day of the week in Islam and Friday sermons often carry important political implications in Iran. Traditionally the domain of conservatives, the sermon was anticipated as the latest face-off in a broader power struggle between the supreme leader and Mr. Ahmadinejad, and rival leaders of the 30-year-old Islamic revolution.
While the sermon probably won’t expand the fissure in Iranian society – between supporters of a more open political and economic system and hard-liners around Khamenei – Rafsanjani did appear to criticize the regime on the very theological grounds it uses to defend its behavior.
Front-row seat for Mousavi
Mousavi sat in the front row – the first time he’s attended the Friday sermon since the election – as Rafsanjani delivered his anticipated address.
A respected cleric, Rafsanjani has been reticent to speak out on the post-election turmoil until now. Though cautious and indirect in his choice of language, a common tactic among clerics, he described the nation as being in a “crisis” due to the way the election was handled, and appeared to criticize the arrests and beatings of protesters.
Rafsanjani appealed for the rule of law to be respected, an open national dialog, and a release of political prisoners. He also criticized the endorsement of the election results by the Guardian Council, the clerical body that is supposed to oversee the supreme leader and the electoral process.
Why justice is so important to Shiites
The question of justice is a central issue for Shiite Muslims. The Islamic Revolution came to power in 1979 promising to deliver the Iranian people from the thuggish and arbitrary behavior that characterized the reign of the Shah it replaced.
Yet today, Rafsanjani teared up as spoke of the prophet Muhammad as one who brought justice, and a man who “protected the rights of all those under his rule.” Those words were followed by his criticism of the imprisonment of protesters and other recent government actions – a context his Iranian audience would not have missed.