TEHRAN – Amid a flurry of anticipation and speculation, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani led Friday prayers in Tehran this week.
The event set off massive protests around the first official appearance of several opposition leaders since the crackdown on protesters following the disputed Jun. 12 presidential election.
Rafsanjani, who heads the powerful Expediency Council, is himself a thought to be a behind-the-scenes supporter of the ostensible loser, Mir Hossein Moussavi, who attended Friday prayers for the first time since the election crisis.
Doors at the event were closed at 10 a.m. and massive crowds were turned away, told that the mosque was already full.
Hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered outside the mosque at Tehran University began to march peacefully toward the university’s main entrance.
The presence of security forces was heavy and people intending to attend Friday prayers were beaten, tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. Though crowds were dispersed, they regrouped in other parts of the city and Tehran was witness to yet another afternoon of violence.
Rafsanjani took the podium at the Tehran Prayers after an almost two-month absence from his rotating position as the temporary Friday prayer leader and four weeks after the announcement of the election results, which many believe fraudulently reinstated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
The election results and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s subsequent support of Ahmadinejad’s win have left the country with a distrustful and angry public and splits among the political elite and the ruling clergy.
Iran has witnessed an unprecedented state of domestic turmoil – the largest crisis since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 – with no promise of a quick resolution.
There were varied expectations of Rafsanjani today. Some had hoped that, like Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist candidates who stood against Ahmadinejad in the elections, Rafsanjani too would support outright the claim of election fraud and refuse to accept the legitimacy of the new government. Others expected that he would take a conciliatory tone pressing for unity and resolution of conflicts.
True to his reputation as a diplomat, Rafsanjani’s presence at the Friday prayers, which drew an unexpectedly high number of participants, and his speech proved useful for a political spin by all groups.
But his words were more critical of conservatives and the election results than most political observers had expected.
"In the elections which took place, we had a very good start and a good competition took place," Rafsanjani said. "The four candidates who were approved by the Guardian Council competed, and the public was hopeful about the free nature of the elections and participated in unprecedented numbers."
"We were prepared for a huge moment of pride, which we should attribute to the people, and we have to thank the people for their presence and participation in the elections, but I wish that those conditions would have continued through to today, but it did not happen as we had intended," he added.
Rafsanjani said the five-day extension provided to the Guardian Council to review the election results was a good decision, but "the opportunity was not well utilized".
He pointed to a distrustful public, "whose numbers are not small, and include a large portion of the learned people of our country, who claim that they have doubts [about the election results]."
"We have to work toward addressing those doubts," Rafsanjani said. "These are bitter times and conditions. We have all incurred losses. Why did it have to be so?"
Rafsanjani made a case for unity as a means to stand against existing threats. As a step toward restoring the public’s trust, he called for the release of political prisoners, freeing of restrictions on the press, and an even-handed and unbiased approach by the state broadcasting company, which many believe has supported Ahmadinejad and which Rafsanjani blamed as a contributor to the current state of turmoil.
Rafsanjani also called for open dialogue in the form of debates between the different groups, the making of amends with discontented clerics and with those who are in mourning, referring to the killing of protesters by security officials.
But Rafsanjani’s proclamations did little to cool the anger of Iranians who braved beatings with batons and tear gas, protested for several hours after the close of the Friday prayers, and chanted slogans like "Allah-o-Akbar," "Death to the Dictator," "Death to Russia," and "My martyred compatriot, I will get your vote back."
Hossein Bastani, a member of the editorial board of Rooz Online, a popular online Farsi-language daily based in France, believes that Rafsanjani’s style to date has been not to directly oppose the supreme leader.
"Rafsanjani will not act in such a way as to be labeled as an opposition figure. He heads two powerful bodies, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, so he will not cross any red lines and will not risk losing his powerful positions within the system," he said.
But according to Bastani, Rafsanjani will use these positions whenever possible to oppose Ahmadinejad.
Moussavi and Karroubi also attended the Friday prayers, marking Moussavi’s first public appearance in weeks.
According to one female participant, the mood of the Friday Prayers was extremely tense. A report by Saham News claims that Karroubi was accosted on his way to the Friday Prayers by plainclothes security agents and again after he left the event.
A female protester who got caught in the violence outside Tehran University said that "the level of violence used by security forces was extreme. They beat people on the streets, regardless of age or gender. But all of this did not deter protesters and it won’t deter them in the future."
According to videos released on the internet, some protesters chanted: "I will kill, I will die, but I will get my vote back."
One human rights activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed fears about the continuation of violence.
"Authorities refuse to take the public’s objections seriously and only tell them to resolve their disputes through legal channels, which we all know is not viable alternative," the activist said. "It is quite possible that citizens, when faced with this level of violence, will also resort to violence."
In his sermon today, Rafsanjani stressed the importance of people’s participation, warning against the presence of a disgruntled public on the streets. He reiterated the need to value both the Islamic nature of the state and the political structure of the republic.
But according to the human rights activist interviewed by IPS, "The public is looking for some sort of strategy or plan to address what lies before them – a government viewed by many to be illegitimate and the fate of the republic. This is not being offered."
Earlier in the week, the Moussavi camp offered a way out of the stalemate, in line with his calls for utilizing legal channels.
On Jul. 14, Alireza Behesthi, an advisor to Moussavi, announced an intention to establish a broad political coalition that would work as a network rather than as an umbrella group. The news was welcomed by many reformists, who see an opportunity for pressing for the rights of citizens.
But on Jul. 15, according to a report by the state-run news agency, Mohammad Abbas Zadeh Meshkini, a high-ranking official at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the issuance of operating licenses to political organizations, announced that "political groups and parties, regardless of how they choose to identify themselves, need to receive an operating permit from the Ministry of Interior."
Meshkini’s statement signals a potential roadblock in Moussavi’s attempt to pursue his demands through legal channels, leaving the opposition few outlets other than continued protests.
(Inter Press Service)