Intermittent clashes between police and protesters persisted in Tehran tonight after an emotional Friday sermon by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most powerful political opponent, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, that has prolonged Iran's political crisis.
The influential former president broke a month-long silence to deliver a politically ambiguous sermon drawing parallels between the popular rallies that "broke the back of the arrogant Pahlavi regime" in 1979 and the street demonstrations following the disputed election last month.
Mr. Rafsanjani, a key supporter of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's presidential campaign, stressed his own revolutionary credentials and called for the release of political prisoners. In a voice trembling with emotion, he called for national reconciliation, stressing respect toward the families of those killed during the protests that claimed at least 20 lives. The sermon was carried by BBC Persia, but by none of Iran's state TV channels.
"His real goal was to ensure the reformist camp can be brought into domestic political equation, that it cannot be written off as the [Communist] Tudeh or [Marxist-Islamic] MKO were at the beginning of the revolution," says Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an Iranian political analyst based in Italy who was in Iran for the recent elections. "Rafsanjani was saying that you can't eject the reformists and discredit them as kafir [infidels], that they're all part of the regime just as much as the hard-liners."
Crowds flee tear gas outside prayer hall
Tens of thousands of reformists followed calls to flood the Friday prayer – an agenda-setting event traditionally dominated by hard-liners. Sitting in the front row was Mr. Mousavi, who, despite strong pressure to accept the election result, has maintained it was fraudulent. Mousavi was, however, unaccompanied by former reformist president and ally Mohammad Khatami – contrary to supporters' expectations – and excluded from the VIP section.
In a move interpreted as an attempt to frustrate calls for reformists to flood the front rows of the Friday prayer hall, up until an hour before the event organizers allowed only individuals who "appeared to belong to a certain political trend or who had made prior arrangements," according to a Persian-language article on the Iranian news site Aftab.
Cellphone networks were down throughout the afternoon as authorities sought to disrupt ground communications between groups of protesters.
But grainy videos shot on cellphones surfaced online within hours of the Friday sermon, showing dramatic street clashes between reformist protesters and police forces. Crowds surged away from plumes of tear gas rising off the tarmac outside the packed open-air prayer hall after security forces shot canisters at protesters thronging Tehran's Revolution Avenue. Demonstrators tied bandannas around their faces, hid behind cars, and kicked tear-gas canisters back in the direction of police forces.
Motorcycle-mounted riot units and ideological militiamen played cat-and-mouse with protesters who dispersed and regrouped, shouting slogans such as "independence and freedom is every Iranian's cry" and singing a nationalist anthem called "Oh Iran" that has become a symbol of opposition to the Islamic Republic.
"The opposition reaffirmed its strength after enduring a month of relentless attack by government forces, but the government will hang on to power with support from the armed forces and a segment of the more traditional and rural population," writes Nader Uscowi, a Washington-based Iran analyst and president of Uskowi Associates in an e-mail. "Ahmadinejad in his second term will pretend to be the president of all Iranians, and the opposition will assert that they are the future of the country. The future of Iran hangs in the balance."
Women's activist arrested on her way to sermon
On a Persian-language video posted on YouTube.com and shot outside the main prayer hall of Tehran University, pro-reform demonstrators could be seen ridiculing a cleric who was prompting them over a loudspeaker to shout slogans for the crowd to follow. The prayer assistant would shout "Death to Israel" and "Down with England" but the crowds retorted with "Down with Russia" – which was among the first countries to congratulate Mr. Ahmadinejad for his victory in the disputed June election. When the assistant shouted "the blood in our veins is a present for our supreme leader," the crowd responded with "the blood in our veins is a present for our people."
Women's activist Shadi Sadr was also arrested today while heading toward Friday prayers in a chador. According to a friend accompanying her, plainclothes security forces forced a struggling Ms. Sadr into an unmarked Peugeot car. "They took Shadi and beat her violently while she continued to resist them," the anonymous friend was quoted as saying on Meydaan.org, an online news site. "The official manhandled Shadi and it was apparent that for them her hijab [which had come undone in the altercations] wasn't even important."