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Unrest after Rafsanjani speech

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by Borzou Daraghi and Ramin Mostaghim of the Los Angeles Times:

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s harsh rebuke of Ahmadinejad supporters is followed by renewed violence, suggesting the discontent over recent election results is as strong as ever.

9:24 AM PDT, July 17, 2009

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — 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.

Rafsanjani, in a closely watched speech, lashed out at the hard-line camp supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized the June 12 election results and promoted several key opposition demands. However, he failed to offer a solution to what has emerged as Iran’s worst political crisis in decades.

His inconclusive speech and the Muslim Sabbath clashes between security forces and supporters of opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi that followed suggested the political firestorm unleashed by the marred vote would continue and that the movement it had inspired was as strong as ever.

“We could have taken our best step in the history of the Islamic revolution had the election not faced problems,” he told worshipers in and around Tehran University. “We are in doubt today. Today, we are living bitter conditions due to what happened after the announcement of the election result. All of us have suffered. We need unity more than any time else.”

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.

“Mousavi caused all these problems,” said Hossein, 50, who regularly attends Friday prayers. “This is his fault.”

Mousavi and fellow reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi attended the sermon, according to photographs published by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency. Former President Mohammad Khatami had vowed to attend, but could not be spotted.

At times the two camps appeared to be shouting directly at each other, exposing the still-festering election rift within Iranian society and the political establishment underneath both at the Friday prayer enclosure on the university campus and on the streets outside.

As Mousavi supporters chanted “Death to the dictator,” against Ahmadinejad, his supporters chanted “Death to opponents” of Khamenei.

As hard-liners repeated their signature cries of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” riled-up Mousavi supporters overpowered them with chants of “Death to Russia” and “Death to China,” the Islamic Republic’s powerful United Nations Security Council protectors.

But Mousavi’s backers came not so much to show support for Rafsanjani, who is widely viewed as a cynical power broker serving his own interests, but to voice opposition to Ahmadinejad and continue to register discontent over the election results they view as rigged.

Rafsanjani’s long-awaited sermon neither cooled protesters’ anger or appeared to alter the dynamics within the ruling establishment and Iranian society. But it gave explicit clerical backing for some of the key demands of the burgeoning political movement built on Mousavi’s presidential campaign and the protests that followed.

Rafsanjani, a key force behind Mousavi, urged tolerance, dialogue and obedience to the law, but criticized the election results and the treatment of dissidents.

“All of us — the establishment, the security forces, police, parliament and even protesters — should move within the framework of law,” Rafsanjani said. “We should open the doors to debates. We should not keep so many people in prison. We should free them to take care of their families.”

He criticized the powerful Guardian Council for its review of the election results, and said all Iranians needed to “restore public confidence, because it was badly damaged.”

He said healing will take time and that utilizing the blunt instruments of state to quiet dissent would only make matters worse.

“It is impossible to restore public confidence overnight, but we have to let everyone speak out,” he said. “We should have logical and brotherly discussions and our people will make their judgments.”

He demanded freedom of the press. Media-monitoring groups say dozens of Iranian journalists have been jailed in last weeks of unrest.

“We should let our media write within the framework of the law and we should not impose restrictions on them,” he said. “We should let our media even criticize us. Our security forces, our police and other organs have to guarantee such a climate for criticism.”

He also urged respect and sympathy for the families of those killed in the violence. “We should try to console them,” he said.

Ahmadinejad, who was on a trip to the northeastern city of Mashhad, announced several new Cabinet positions, including the U.S.-educated Ali Akbar Salehi, a former envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, as head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Irancove @ July 17, 2009

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