A large crowd of opposition supporters today transformed an official prayer ceremony in Tehran into a show of strength, chanted “azadi, azadi” (“freedom”), and voiced continued support for Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who defiantly continues to criticize the ruling regime. Mousavi made his first official public appearance since the election when he attended the Friday prayer led by one of his key supporters, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. While Rafsanjani sternly criticized the rigging of the elections and violent repression of the security services, police fired tear gas and assaulted some of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who were unable to enter the ceremony at Tehran University.

Rafsanjani reportedly got tears in his eyes (perhaps from the tear gas?) as he spoke of how the Prophet Muhammad “respected the rights” of his people. Rafsanjani said the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini “knew that people’s vote was the most important thing in our country” and stressed that “[w]here people are not present or their vote is not considered, that government is not Islamic”. He criticized the post-election wave of arrests, the violent actions of the security forces, the regime’s censorship of the media, and the Guardian Council, which failed to adequately investigate widespread reports of election-rigging in the June 12 presidential election. Rafsanjani also called for the immediate release of the thousands of protesters who have been arrested. He warned, “The system cannot lose them. If the system reproaches them they will come back to us.”

Presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who has joined Mousavi in denouncing the regime, was attacked by plain clothes police thugs when he got out of his car to attend the prayer ceremony. Other opposition supporters in the crowd were roughed up and some were arrested, including women’s rights activist Shadi Sadr.

Rafsanjani’s public criticism of the regime’s harsh response to the popular protest movement is significant because he is a key power-broker within the regime and has strong revolutionary credentials as a prominent protégé of Ayatollah Khomeini. The former president, who up till now has worked quietly behind the scenes in support of Mousavi, now has publicly challenged the authority and the judgment of Khomeini’s successor as the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, although he was careful not to explicitly criticize Khamenei by name. The public splintering of the regime into warring factions at the highest levels will add a destabilizing element to an already volatile political situation. Today’s events make it clear that Iran has not seen the end of its political turmoil, either within or without the regime.

For more on Iran, see: Iran Briefing Room