Cleric Says 'Crisis' Has Caused Loss of Public Trust
July 17, 2009 1:34pm CST
New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/world/middleeast/18iran.html?_r=1&hp By ROBERT F. WORTH and ALAN COWELL Published: July 17, 2009 BEIRUT, Lebanon — As thousands of opposition protesters chanted in the streets of Tehran on Friday, the former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani assailed the government’s handling of the post-election unrest, saying it had lost the trust of many Iranians and calling for the release of hundreds of protesters and democracy advocates arrested in recent weeks. Mr. Rafsanjani, speaking to a vast crowd at Tehran University that included the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi and many of his supporters, called for unity and reconciliation in his prayer sermon. But he also said doubts about the election “are now consuming us” and called for a new spirit of compromise between the opposition and the government. Outside the university’s prayer hall, police officers used tear gas and truncheons to disperse large crowds of protesters chanting anti-government slogans, and there were reports of at least 15 arrests. It was the largest street gathering by opposition supporters in weeks, witnesses said. Mr. Rafsanjani, a powerful insider who supported Mr. Moussavi’s campaign, did not directly question the election results, which have been blessed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he made clear that he believed Mr. Khamenei, who has blamed foreign powers for the unrest and called for an end to protests, should take a more conciliatory stance. Calling the election aftermath a “crisis,” Mr. Rafsanjani urged that restrictions on the press and on free speech be removed, in addition to the freeing of those detained since the election. Mr. Rafsanjani also criticized the Guardian Council, a powerful supervisory body that is loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei and that looked into possible election fraud, saying it did not make the best use of the time the supreme leader gave it to investigate. “A large group” of Iranians say they have doubts about the election, Mr. Rafsanjani said. “We should work to address these doubts.” He said he had discussed a possible solution with members of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, two powerful state institutions he heads. He said his proposed solution was based on two principles: that everything must be done within a legal framework, and that there must be a free and open debate. Mr. Rafsanjani’s proposal was an implicit rebuke to Ayatollah Khamenei, who tried to close the door on the post-election turmoil in his own Friday Prayer speech in the same hall three weeks ago. Ayatollah Khamenei has long presented himself as a neutral arbiter who sits above Iran’s political disputes, but many Iranians say his support for Mr. Ahmadinejad has made the supreme leader seem a more partisan figure. In that sense, Mr. Rafsanjani, a consummate pragmatist and bitter rival of Mr. Ahmadinejad, appeared to be reclaiming a central role as a mediating figure in the top of the Iranian power structure. Before he spoke, one witness said, large numbers of police officers blocked access to the university and fired tear gas into a crowd. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters sat in the streets about a mile back from the campus, cheering parts of Mr. Rafsanjani’s speech, heard over loudspeakers. Many women in the crowd did not wear the covering customary at prayers, the witness said. One of the people arrested was Shadi Sadr, a prominent lawyer and activist, who was bundled into a car and beaten with batons by plainclothes security officers, Amnesty International and a witness said. Ms. Sadr managed to escape briefly but was recaptured and driven to an undisclosed destination, Amnesty said. Government militiamen beat some protesters after the tear gas was fired, and people started marching onto the streets, the witness said. “People were silent and civilized, but they started demonstrating after the police shot tear gas,” the witness said. “It turned into another bloody scene. There were so many forces out there holding, and it was clear that they wanted to crush people again. There were so many people and so many forces that the protests spread to streets several miles away from the university.” Some people chanted, “Fraud, crime, incompetent government,” while others urged Mr. Rafsanjani to speak out forthrightly, saying, “Rafsanjani, you are a traitor if you remain silent.” Mr. Rafsanjani, who runs two powerful state institutions, regularly leads the weekly prayer service, but Friday was the first time he had done so since the election. “Doubt has been created,” Mr. Rafsanjani said. “There are two currents. One doesn’t have any doubt and is moving ahead with their job. And there are a large portion of the wise people who say they have doubts. We need to take action to remove this doubt.” His remarks were translated by news agencies. Mr. Rafsanjani said the turmoil after the ballot “was a bitter period” in which “all were the losers,” The Associated Press reported. Calling for national unity, he criticized the brutal official crackdown. “Sympathy must be offered to those who suffered from the events that occurred and reconcile them with the ruling system,” he reportedly said. “This is achievable.” He also seemed to suggest that the government risked losing its credibility as the descendant of the 1979 Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. During the campaign leading up to the June election, Mr. Ahmadinejad accused Mr. Rafsanjani of corruption, a charge which was widely reported to have infuriated him. “If the Islamic and Republican sides of the revolution are not preserved, it means we have forgotten the principles of the revolution,” said Mr. Rafsanjani, who was regarded as close to Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Rafsanjani said it was vital to restore voters’ faith in the system, The A.P. reported. “That trust cannot be brought back in a day or a night,” he said. He added: “We all have been harmed. Today more than ever we need unity.” He also took issue with the authorities’ handling of the post-election unrest. “I speak as a person who has been with the revolution on a daily basis,” he said. “We knew what Imam Khomeini wanted. He didn’t want the use of terror or arms, even in fights.” Mr. Rafsanjani said it was “not necessary” to continue holding the detainees in prison and added that Iran “should not let enemies criticize or laugh at us” for keeping its citizens in jail. In what seemed an appeal for a new consensus to heal the profound rifts that have opened since the election, he said: “We are all members of a family. I hope with this sermon we can pass through this period of hardships that can be called a crisis,” according to a Reuters translation. Robert F. Worth reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alan Cowell from London. Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Toronto, and independent observers from Tehran.