Iran warns opposition ahead of key sermon

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivers a Friday sermon after an eight-week absence.
Former president and one of Iran’s most powerful clerics, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has started delivering the Friday sermon at Tehran University, witnesses told CNN.

Rafsanjani, who backs reformist Mir Hossein Moussavi, the opposition candidate who challenged hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed June 12 elections, planned to offer a solution to the ongoing crisis in the latter part of his sermon, witnesses said. They added that a large crowd had gathered to hear his highly anticipated remarks and noted the wearing of green wristbands, the color of opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi’s candidacy. Opposition supporters gathered outside the Friday prayers hall and in surrounding neighborhoods. Among the chants heard were “God is great” and “Hashemi [Rafsanjani]: If you remain silent, you are a criminal.” Demonstrators took to the streets to protest the June vote that declared Ahmadinejad the winner. Rafsanjani, a frequent speaker at the weekly prayers on Islam’s holy day, has been noticeably absent since the election. That absence has been interpreted by many as an indication of conflict within the Iranian establishment and Rafsanjani’s public comments Friday are viewed as pivotal by some political observers in Iran. Earlier Friday, state-run media reported that Iran’s intelligence minister warned worshippers on Islam’s holy day to remain vigilant so that the Friday prayers do not transform into “undesirable events.”

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Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i said security was in “good condition” in the capital, Tehran, according to the state-run Fars News Agency. Moussavi has said he has accepted an invitation from Rafsanjani to attend the Friday sermon. Another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, will also attend, according to his Web site. Earlier this month, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) quoted Rafsanjani as saying: “People from across the county participated in the elections with excitement. But unfortunately, the events that occurred after that, and the difficulties created for some, left a bitter taste, and I don’t think any wakened consciousness would be satisfied with the resulting situation.” Rafsanjani, who became increasingly vocal in opposing the brutal crackdown on demonstrators who protested election results, is under pressure to publicly deliver support for the Iranian establishment in his upcoming remarks. “After a monthlong silence, the position of Hashemi Rafsanjani will be very important for those of all political inclinations, particularly those who are aiming at the (destruction) of the unity of the system,” lawmaker Mohammad Karim Shahrzad said in a recent interview with Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Shahrzad called on Rafsanjani — head of the Assembly of Experts, the council responsible for appointing or removing the supreme leader — to “announce the support of the Supreme Leadership as the highest authority” in his speech. A member of parliament said Rafsanjani’s sermon will be “historic.” “What is certain is that Ayatollah Hashemi holds dear the principles and values of the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] that are founded upon the people,” said Ghodratollah AliKhani, quoted in Etemad-e Melli, a newspaper aligned with Karrubi. “The principle weight of this system and revolution has been on the shoulders of the people, who are today the foundations of this system and Ayatollah Hashemi will certainly, in his speech, keep in mind the defense of the people and their rights,” AliKhani said. Moussavi’s supporters took to the streets last month to protest the outcome of last month’s election that gave Ahmadinejad an overwhelming victory. Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh, and four other of his relatives were briefly detained for taking part in one of those rallies. The widespread street protests and civil unrest led to the death of at least 20 demonstrators and the arrest of more than 1,000, according to Iran’s state-run media. The numbers of casualties and arrests could not be independently verified by CNN because of restrictions on international journalists by the Iranian government. Rafsanjani remains an influential figure in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s circle, but he has made “a real break with the supreme leader in this case,” Iranian-American author Hooman Majd told CNN recently. He was missing when Iran’s power brokers assembled on June 19 at Friday prayers to hear Khamenei declare Ahmadinejad the winner. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to be sworn in before parliament on July 26.