Friday Prayers In Iran, And Their Aftermath

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 17, 2009

Today, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and the current head of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, led Friday prayers in Iran, with Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, the reformist predecessor to Ahmadinejad, and Mehdi Karroubi, another reformist candidate (who was attacked by basijis outside of the prayer service) all in attendance. As has been mentioned before, Rafsanjani has been instrumental in providing high-ranking clerical support to reformist groups, and there are persistent rumors that Rafsanjani is using, or will use his position as the head of the Assembly of Experts to get rid of Khamene’i, the current supreme leader.

As the leader of Friday prayers, Rafsanjani gave a speech, which is translated here (via the Guardian). Another translation is found here. Farsi speakers can see the whole of the speech here; it is broken up into separate YouTube segments. This report helps explain the significance of the speech:

Whatever [Rafsanjani] said, his very presence at such a tense time would have guaranteed rapt attention – one reason why his sermon was not, as is usual, broadcast live on state TV whose cameras are mounted permanently in the university mosque.

The sense of excitement was heightened because of the presence of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have beaten Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on 12 June and who rejects the election result as “illegitimate.” His fellow candidate, the reformist cleric Mehdi Karoubi, was also there.

Rafsanjani’s calls to restore trust by releasing prisoners, freeing the media, using only legal means, and by dialogue between opposition and the regime, were couched in the language of legitimacy and justice. “Don’t let our enemies laugh at us by putting people in prison,” the cleric urged. “We must search for unity to find a way out of our quandary.”

Specific proposals had been laid before the expediency council (an advisory body to the supreme leader) he said, a reminder that he has a real role to play.

“His demands were in line with what the reformists want but he did not explicitly challenge the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government,” concluded one veteran Iranian political analyst. “This was an effort to play the role of power-broker – the role that Khamenei should have played but did not.”

Rafsanjani also stressed the importance of the “republic” in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a deliberate riposte to those hardliners who stand accused of planning an Islamic dictatorship. His references to Ayatollah Khomeni praised the late leader’s positive attitude towards ordinary people – a clear invitation to make an unflattering comparison with Khamenei.

More from the Washington Post:

Rafsanjani made clear that he has been consulting influential clerics and experienced politicians who share his views. But his comments suggested that he remains at odds with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in a June 19 sermon at Friday prayers urged all Iranians to fully accept Ahmadinejad’s victory, strongly denounced the protests and rejected allegations of vote-rigging.

The demonstrations that followed Rafsanjani’s sermon suggested that any official occasion can potentially bring people to the streets. The next protests are expected when Ahmadinejad officially takes office for a second term. His swearing-in ceremony is now scheduled for early August.

Rafsanjani, who has remained largely on the sidelines during the election crisis, made a point of mentioning during his sermon a body of influential clerics that has the power to remove Khamenei from office: the 86-member Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani heads. If two-thirds of the members deem the supreme leader unable to fulfill his duties, the assembly can remove him. This power has never been exercised in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history.

“I’ve conferred with a number of members of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council whose advice I trust,” Rafsanjani said in explaining his proposals to “rebuild trust.”

He recalled that Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once reminded him of a conversation in which the prophet Muhammad told Imam Ali, Shiite Islam’s most revered saint: “The leadership of this people is yours. If the people reach a consensus on you, then govern them. If not, let go.”

The significance of this passage should, of course, be obvious to everyone.

And still more:

Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani couched his sermon with calls for unity, but his challenge to the regime was unmistakable. “Today is a bitter day,” he said. “I hope with this sermon we can pass through this period of hardships that can be called a crisis.”

He warned Iran’s leaders not to ignore the will of the people — a key tenet of the revolution. “If the Islamic and Republic aspects of the revolution are not preserved, it means we have forgotten the principles of the revolution,” he said. “Our key issue is to return the trust which the people had and now to some extent is broken.”

Reminding worshippers of his close relationship with the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, he condemned the use of iron-fisted security forces to crush protests. “We knew what Imam Khomeini wanted. He didn’t want the use of terror or arms,” he said.

Iran puts the official death toll at 20, although human rights activists believe hundreds may have been killed during the protests. Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani drew thunderous applause as, blinking back tears, he demanded the release of the hundreds detained, who are accused of fomenting violence on the orders of Western powers. “It is not necessary that in this situation people be jailed. Let them join their families. We should not allow enemies to rebuke and ridicule us because of detentions. We should tolerate each other,” he said.

(It should be noted that Rafsanjani is an ayatollah, not a hojat-al-Islam.) By far the most remarkable thing about today was that despite all of the security measures that have been taken over the past few weeks to dampen the fires of dissent and protest, dissent and protest broke out as a consequence of today’s events:

Security forces fired tear gas and plainclothes militiamen armed with batons charged at crowds of protesters gathered near Tehran University after a Friday prayer sermon delivered by the cleric and opposition supporter Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his first appearance at the nation’s weekly keynote sermon since before the election.

[. . .]

Even before Rafsanjani’s speech began, security forces were stuffing young men into waiting police vans. Helmeted Basiji militiamen aboard motorcycles began pushing forward.

After the speech, downtown Tehran erupted in violence as security forces attacked crowds of demonstrators, older and grayer than recent gatherings, who were chanting “Death to the dictator!” and “God is great.”

Tear gas filled streets as demonstrators sought to enter the gates of Tehran University, which riot police had locked. The crowds swarmed through downtown, chanting slogans as the afternoon wore on, lighting cigarettes and putting them in front of one another’s faces to ward off the effects of the tear gas.

Masked demonstrators also set trash fires in the middle of roadways to burn off the tear gas, videos posted on YouTube showed. Another group shut down two highways, while yet another handed flowers to smiling policemen and kissed them on the cheeks, according to witnesses.

Another large group gathered in front of the Ministry of Interior, which is under the control of Sadegh Mahsouli, a wealthy ally of Ahmadinejad.

“Mahsouli! Mahsouli! Give my vote back,” they chanted, according to a video posted to YouTube.

Demonstrators also began to head north to approach the headquarters of state broadcasting, which has barely reported on the unrest and aired a cooking show on television during Rafsanjani’s speech.

“Last Thursday five of my friends were arrested, and they are in Evin Prison, and it’s my duty to come and participate,” said Nahid, a 22-year-old law student who asked that her last name not be published.

Reformist websites estimated that more than 1 million people participated, and even indignant supporters of the hard-line camp at the prayer session to show support for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the crowds were unprecedented.

More:

Tens of thousands of government opponents packed Iran’s main Islamic prayer service Friday, chanting “freedom, freedom” and other slogans as their top clerical backer Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivered a sermon bluntly criticizing the country’s leadership over the crackdown on election protests.

Outside, police and pro-government Basiji militiamen fired tear gas and charged thousands of protesters who chanted “death to the dictator” and called on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resign. Dozens were arrested, piled in trucks and taken away, witnesses said.

Plainclothes Basijis stood in front of a line of riot police and pumped canisters of tear gas, which young protesters with green bandanas over their faces kicked away across the pavement, away from the crowds. Some set a bonfire in the street and waved their hands in the air in victory signs.

The opposition aimed to turn the Friday prayers at Tehran University into a show of their continued strength despite heavy government suppression since the disputed June 12 presidential election.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the election, sat among the worshippers, attending for the first time since the turmoil began. Many of the tens of thousands at the prayers wore headbands or wristbands in his campaign color green, or had green prayer rugs, in a crowd that filled the former soccer field where prayers are held and spilling into nearby streets.

In his sermon broadcast live on radio nationwide, Rafsanjani reprimanded the clerical leadership for not listening to people’s complaints over the election, which was declared a victory for Ahmadinejad despite opposition claims of fraud.

Much more concerning the protests can be found here, and here. After the events of today, it is clear that those who believed the protests were shut down need to reconsider their opinions. It seems clear that the dissent we are seeing in Iran will last quite a while, and the demands of the protesters will not be sated until fundamental reforms are finally put into place.

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