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Iran supreme leader warns opposition

Iran's supreme leader issued a tough warning on Monday to the opposition to back down after a pro-reform former president called for a referendum on the government's legitimacy, a sign of the movement's growing boldness in challenging the country's clerical rulers.

world Updated: Jul 20, 2009 22:58 IST

Iran's supreme leader issued a tough warning on Monday to the opposition to back down after a pro-reform former president called for a referendum on the government's legitimacy, a sign of the movement's growing boldness in challenging the country's clerical rulers.

The exchanges between the opposition on one side and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his core of hard-line clerical supporters on the others appeared to be heating up, reflecting how the monthlong conflict over Iran's disputed presidential election is entering a new level, a struggle within the leadership itself. The opposition has been energized by a show of support last week from former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key figure within the ruling clerical hierarchy. On Monday, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi made some of his harshest comments yet at hard-liners and, implicitly, Khamenei himself.

Mousavi said they had insulted Iran's people by claiming that the anger over June 12 presidential elections that exploded into massive protests was fueled by foreigners.

"You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements," Mousavi said during a meeting with families of those arrested in the postelection crackdown, in which he called for the detainees' release. "Arrests ... won't put an end to this problem. End this game as soon as possible and return to the nation its (arrested) sons."

Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds final say in all state matters in Iran, has declared valid the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has demanded a stop to questioning the results. Mousavi and his camp claim Ahmadinejad's win was fraudulent and that the new government he is to form next month will be illegitimate. Khamenei's warning on Monday was clearly aimed at telling the opposition to stay in line, and at Rafsanjani, hinting that the powerful cleric was not above punishment for his stances. The speech made clear the supreme leader was digging in against any talk of a referendum on Ahmadinejad's government.

Khamenei addressed his comments to "the elite," saying they could be careful in the positions they take on the postelection dispute and not do anything that will hurt Iran's security, which he said would be "the biggest vice."

"The elite should be watchful, since they have been faced with a big test. Failing the test will cause their collapse," Khamenei told a group of officials in a speech marking a religious holiday Monday, according to state radio.

"Anybody who drives the society toward insecurity and disorder is a hated person in the view of the Iranian nation, whoever he is," Khamenei said, as Ahmadinejad and other officials sat on the floor beside him on stage.

The opposition's persistence in its campaign against Ahmadinejad has become a direct challenge to the supreme leader, who is considered by conservatives as the representative of God's rule on earth and has the final word deciding all political disputes. Security forces crushed pro-Mousavi protests by hundreds of thousands of people in the weeks after the elections, arresting hundreds. At least 20 people were killed, though human rights groups believe the number is far higher. Hard-line clerics backing Khamenei have been telling Iranians to support the supreme leader and depicting the opposition as tools of foreign enemies like Britain and the United States.

Khamenei repeated that argument Monday, saying foreign countries' news media had fueled the protests by airing "procedures for rioting."

Opposition leader Mousavi responded sharply. While he didn't directly mention Khamenei, he appeared to address him and his tone was unusually defiant.

"Who believes that they (protesters) would conspire with foreigners and sell the interests of their own country? Has our country become so mean and degraded that you attribute the huge protest movement of the nation to foreigners? Isn't this an insult to our nation?" Mousavi said during his visit to the families, according to pro-reform Web sites.

On Sunday, a leading reformist, former President Mohammad Khatami, called for a referendum on whether Ahmadinejad's government is legitimate and for a neutral body to oversee the vote. The proposal appeared to be an attempt by the opposition to put forward a concrete demand around which supporters can rally to press on the leadership. Khamenei is unlikely to accept the idea, but just issuing the call is a sign of increased confidence among the opposition.

"I openly say now that the solution to get out of the current crisis is holding a referendum," Khatami said, according to reformist Web sites.

The Association of Combatant Clerics, a reform-minded clerical group to which Khatami belongs, echoed his call, saying in a statement that a referendum must be "monitored not by bodies that brought this fate to the election but by a neutral body that people can trust."

That was a direct jab at the Guardian Council, a powerful clerical body that oversaw the election. On orders from Khamenei, the council held a partial recount that upheld Ahmadinejad's win, but the opposition dismisses the recount, accusing the council of openly backing Ahmadinejad. The council is appointed by Khamanei and is dominated by hard-liners.

The association in its statement proposed that the referendum instead be monitored by the Expediency Council, another clerical body headed by Rafsanjani,

In his sermon Friday, Rafsanjani, also a former president, cast doubt on Ahmadinejad's victory and reprimanded the leadership for its harsh crackdown against peaceful protests and for not listening to the claims of fraud. He called for the release of all those detained as a first step toward a resolution.