- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

Iran’s political opposition mounted a massive new show of strength Friday that included a tough speech by one of Iran’s most influential figures, deepening divisions within the regime’s elite and demonstrating that the crisis gripping the nation for the past five weeks is far from over.

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, addressing a Friday prayers gathering in Tehran for the first time since the disputed June 12 presidential elections, harshly criticized the government for ignoring complaints about suspected electoral fraud.

He said the Islamic Republic was behaving in a manner that was neither Islamic nor respectful of citizens’ rights, and he called for the release of political prisoners and a restoration of free speech.

“Where people are not present or their vote is not considered, that government is not Islamic,” Mr. Rafsanjani said, according to a translation by the Associated Press.

“Doubt has been created [about the election results],” he said. “There is a large portion of the wise people who say they have doubts. We need to take action to remove this doubt.”

Since the inception of the Islamic government, Mr. Rafsanjani has been among its most powerful members. A close ally of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution, Mr. Rafsanjani has held a series of influential posts. He was speaker of the parliament in the 1980s, president from 1989 to 1997, and currently heads both the Expediency Council - a body charged with resolving disputes among government institutions - and the Assembly of Experts - a group of 86 Shi’ite Muslim clerics that is supposed to oversee the office of the supreme leader of Iran.

Although Mr. Rafsanjani called for unity in support of the country’s system of government, tens of thousands of those present at the sermon and outside the grounds of Tehran University chanted slogans demanding “freedom” and criticizing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Police used tear gas on the crowd and arrested dozens, eyewitnesses told The Washington Times.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who asserts that he won the presidential election, was among the worshippers for the first time since the disputed vote. Many in the audience wore green headbands or wristbands or had green prayer rugs, the AP reported.

Green was the color of Mr. Mousavi’s campaign.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of the Iranian parliament who is now a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for International Studies, said there were new slogans that showed the crowd’s support for democracy and opposition to authoritarian rule.

“They chanted ‘Death to Russia’ instead of ‘Death to America,’ ” the standard slogan when pro-government clerics address Friday prayers in Iran, she said.

She said many Iranians believe that Russia has trained some of Iran’s anti-riot security forces to try to prevent a “color” revolution like those that occurred in two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia.

The AP said some in the crowd also chanted “Death to China” in an apparent critique of China’s recent crackdown on Muslim demonstrators in Xinjiang province, and of the Iranian government, which has been silent about China’s behavior.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Mr. Rafsanjani - a controversial figure who lost a 2005 election bid and who many Iranians view as corrupt - “still has some way to go to rehabilitate himself” to the Iranian people.

Still, he performed an important function on Friday, Mr. Sadjadpour said. Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad are trying to “close the door on this election. [Mr. Rafsanjani] kicked the door open in a very important setting.”

One of a handful of regime stalwarts tasked with addressing Friday prayers - a key means of promulgating government views since the 1979 revolution - Mr. Rafsanjani “would have been seen as a coward as well as a crook” if he had not spoken out against the elections, Mr. Sadjadpour said.

Instead, he “didn’t cede ground and he questioned the legitimacy of the elections. People on the streets were pleasantly surprised,” the analyst added.

Ms. Haghighatjoo said Mr. Rafsanjani “did a great job.”

She predicted that pressure would continue to mount on Mr. Ahmadinejad to resign or for parliament to impeach him. The government has set no date for the president’s second inauguration, which ordinarily would have followed the election within a few weeks.

Mr. Sadjadpour said the crisis shows no sign of abating even though both the supreme leader and the president are insisting that the election is “a done deal.”

While the political opposition in Iran has been hampered by the arrest of many of its most influential strategists, Mr. Sadjadpour said the opposition strategy was to “keep it on simmer while they develop a game plan” and hope that the regime’s legitimacy will continue to erode.

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