Iran: A Showdown at Friday Prayers?

Iran: A Showdown at Friday Prayers?

Friday’s weekly Friday prayer service at Tehran University will do a lot more than honor the onset of the Muslim sabbath. The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, plans to lead the service himself — and he has publicly requested the attendance of all the main players in the political drama that has roiled Iran since last Friday’s disputed election.

Reports on Thursday suggested that opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi encouraged his supporters to attend the event, but overnight word circulated that he and reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi had urged their followers to stay away, although the authenticity of those claims could not be verified. One group planning to attend in force is the basij militia loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have been at the forefront of brutal attacks on opposition supporters. While this creates a potentially volatile security situation — just a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people, divided by political faction and stoked by a week of fervor — it also squeezes Mousavi and other opposition leaders politically. Khamenei is not inviting them to prayers to demonstrate their piety; he’s demanding a symbolic show of loyalty to the Islamic Republic itself, and its founding principle of giving ultimate political authority to its clerical Supreme Leader.

The government has already declared the opposition’s protest marches illegal, and in a Wednesday meeting with opposition candidates, Khamenei urged them to “dissociate themselves from rioters” and pursue their complaints about the election results by petitioning the various appointed councils of the regime. But for Mousavi, heeding the Supreme Leader’s call to take his supporters off the streets — and rely only on clerical bodies loyal to Khamenei to sort through a contested election — would be to surrender his trump card: it is the street protests that have caused Khamenei to hesitate after doing his utmost to get his ally Ahmadinejad elected. If Mousavi doesn’t take his supporters off the streets, Khamenei could well unleash the security forces on what will be deemed a threat to the Republic.

Whether or not they attend the prayer service, Mousavi’s supporters plan to hold their own rally in Tehran on Saturday. The Supreme Leader’s sermon may contain important clues as to how the basij and other security forces will respond. The opposition candidate’s supporters inside the regime are also working hard to reinforce his case for reversing last Friday’s announcement. The combination of pressure on the streets and in the corridors of power has already compelled Khamenei to reverse his initial proclamations and order a recount of the vote.

The Supreme Leader may in fact be under competing pressures. The Assembly of Experts, the body of clerics that appoints — and can remove him — is chaired by Mousavi supporter Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is reportedly lobbying the body to intervene. But Khamenei has also thrown in his lot with Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the security forces, who may be in a hurry to bring to an end to the challenge to his second term in office. So Khamenei must find a way to lean on the opposition candidates to rein in their supporters, while not being seen to be abusing his authority to enforce an election result deemed fraudulent by many millions of Iranians.

Not your average Friday prayer service at Tehran University, then.

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