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All Eyes On Friday Prayers In Iran

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading Friday Prayers at Tehran University on June 19, where he called for protests to end.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading Friday Prayers at Tehran University on June 19, where he called for protests to end.

Friday Prayers in Tehran were expected to be the least scripted event of its kind in years in Iran, and even to become a platform for the opposition.

Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani led the prayers, and called in his sermon for the release of prisoners detained amid postelection protests and official steps to address public doubts about the June 12 presidential election that was awarded to hard-line incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi was in attendance and there were clashes reported between his supporters and Iranian security forces outside Tehran University, where Rafsanjani were leading the faithful in prayer.

Pamphlets were circulating describing July 17 as "the promised day" and saying "the Green Wave should rise up." Supporters of Iran's "Green" movement, which backed Musavi's bid for the presidency, were describing the significance of this week's Friday Prayers as "epic."

It was difficult to predict what might come out of the event.

Many were hoping it would provide a boost for supporters of former Prime Minister Musavi, who have in recent days adopted methods of passive resistance to express their discontent with the election's outcome.

Musavi supporters last protested en masse on July 9, when thousands of people took to the streets in Tehran and a few other cities to mark the anniversary of the student protests of 1999.

The Greens were hoping that Rafsanjani -- considered one of the pillars of the Islamic establishment, and who backed Musavi in the presidential race -- would make some gesture or comment to support their cause.

Conservatives, for their part, would like to see a message of support for what one group of hard-line students calls "an administration that has sprung from the will of the people."

A Conservative Bastion


Tehran's Friday Prayers are traditionally a gathering point for the conservative leadership. The government buses in its supporters -- Basij militia, soldiers, and students -- to fill out the crowd. They sit for hours listening to sermons and are known to break into chants of "Death to America," "Death to Israel," or "Nuclear energy is our absolute right!"

Attending prayers is not part of the ordinary Friday routine of most people in Tehran.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 19
Instead, they tend to spend the day off work doing things like hiking in the mountains around the city. But this week many people who have never attended the official Friday Prayers at Tehran University say they will go to express their unhappiness with the political situation.

Tehran's Friday Prayers are a platform at which the establishment sets out the country's political agenda and sends messages to "enemies," usually the United States, Israel, or the West. Often the messages are directed against critics of the regime within the country.

A speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the June 19 Friday Prayers was seen as paving the way for the crackdown on protesters.

"Struggling in the street after an election is not the right thing to do. But also, it challenges the principle of democracy and election," Khamenei said in his sermon.

"I ask everyone to stop this. This way is wrong. If they don't stop this, then they will bear the responsibility and the consequences of this chaos."

The day after the speech, a peaceful protest in Tehran was brutally suppressed and at least 20 people were killed. Among the dead was Neda, a young woman who has since become a symbol of the Green movement.

What Will He Say?

Rafsanjani was not present at the June 19 prayers, and he remained absent for the next several weeks. Musavi and other key reformists, including former President Mohammad Khatami and another reform-minded presidential candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, were also absent on June 19.

But Ahmadinejad was sitting in the front row and listening to Supreme Leader Khamenei attentively, "like a little boy listening to his father," some observers quipped.

This Friday, Ahmadinejad was the one missing. He was reportedly due to travel to Mashhad. But Musavi, Khatami, and Karrubi were expected to be there to hear what Rafsanjani has to say.

Will Rafsanjani challenge the conservatives?
During a televised debate during the election campaign, Ahmadinejad shocked the country by accusing Rafsanjani -- by name -- of corruption. In response, Rafsanjani said the president had lit a spark that would spread beyond the election and could harm the establishment -- including Khamenei himself.

During the postelection unrest, Rafsanjani was largely silent. On the rare occasions when he spoke about the controversy, he made vague statements accusing unspecified elements of creating divisions between the people and the establishment.

Few observers expect Rafsanjani -- who heads the Assembly of Experts, which is charged with electing and removing the supreme leader -- to say anything controversial during his sermon. Yet even if the Greens do not get the support they are looking for, these Friday Prayers have great symbolic value and expose further the deep divisions within the establishment.

They could also provide a stage for the opposition to display its power, unity, and determination to continue protesting.

However, the opposition could also face harsh resistance from pro-government forces. A newly launched reformist website called "Mowjcamp" has warned that the government is taking measures to prevent the Greens from attending the prayers en masse and that a heavy security presence can be expected.
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