TEHRAN, Iran — Government security forces beat demonstrators and fired tear gas in central Tehran Friday after one of the country's most influential clerics told a huge crowd of opposition supporters that the government would lose its claim to Islamic legitimacy if it didn't address widespread doubts about the results of June's presidential election.
Opposition Web sites and blogs reported dozens of new arrests, including that of prominent women's rights activist Shadi Sadr, though there was no official confirmation. Witnesses saw members of the government's Basij militia hauling off some demonstrators and beating others with batons.
Militiamen also seized the camera and broke the recording equipment of an Iranian correspondent for McClatchy. The correspondent watched as a Basij member grabbed the wrist of a young woman, asking her "Why are you here?" several times. She screamed for help and bystanders tried to free her, but the militiaman called for backup and the woman was detained. The militiamen then turned on the correspondent.
The demonstrations broke out after former president and prominent cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told tens of thousands who'd gathered at Tehran University for Friday prayers that the government risks its legitimacy by ignoring anger over its declaration that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election.
"We believe in the Islamic Republic," Rafsanjani said. "They have to stand together If 'Islamic' doesn't exist, we will go astray. And if 'Republic' is not there, (our goals) won't be achieved. Where people are not present or their vote is not considered, that government is not Islamic."
Rafsanjani's remarks, his first in public since the election, didn't directly criticize the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who's ordered an end to protests, and some in the crowd expressed disappointment at his conciliatory tone.
There was no way to deny the drama of Rafsanjani's sermon, however. As a founder of the Islamic Republic and a member of two of the country's top three clerical councils, Rafsanjani's questioning of the government's legitimacy is difficult to ignore.
The sermon was broadcast live on Iranian radio. Throngs that rivaled the crowds that had assembled for protests in the first days after the election flocked to hear him, and opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi sat in the front row — Mousavi's first appearance at Friday prayers since the election.
Thousands wore green, the color associated with Mousavi's campaign, and many carried homemade placards emblazoned with anti-government messages and photos of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman whose shooting death during an earlier protest galvanized the movement.
Secular protesters took pains to ready themselves for their debut in an unlikely venue, the communal prayer service that's typically attended by observant, pro-government Iranians known for their chants of "Death to America!" In recent days, secular Iranians looked to blogs and Facebook pages, where supporters posted step-by-step refresher lessons on how to pray.
Police also were prepared for what they expected would be demonstrations after Rafsanjani spoke. They blocked off main streets in central Tehran as Rafsanjani's sermon neared.
Rafsanjani didn't mention Khamenei by name and couched his message in a call for reconciliation.
"I hope this Friday prayer sermon will be the beginning of a development and will help us pass safely through this problem, which unfortunately can be called a crisis," Rafsanjani told the crowd. His speech was interrupted several times by shouts in support of Mousavi. At one point, Rafsanjani choked up as he recounted how Islam's Prophet Muhammad "respected the rights" of his people.
Some critics said Rafsanjani's gingerly worded sermon carried an unmistakable message — not even Rafsanjani was immune to the government crackdown.
"I expect Mr. Rafsanjani to support people's wishes," said Mohsen Ahmadzadeh, a 43-year-old businessman. "He should not play it safe for his own sake. This might be the last and most important political decision of his life. He owes it to the people of Iran."
Others, however, said Rafsanjani's approach should come as no surprise, even though before the election Rafsanjani had blamed Ahmadinejad for Iran's faltering, oil-dependent economy, and Ahmadinejad accused the wealthy Rafsanjani family of corruption.
"There is no love lost between them, but he will refrain from taking any direct action," Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat, told al Jazeera International television Friday.
Others, however, saw the sermon as simply another opportunity to call for change.
"I don't care for Mousavi. I just care for freedom, for me and my family and the Iranian people. I will support anyone who can help me achieve it," said Reza Allahyari, who was in the crowd at the university.
(A McClatchy special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons reported from Tehran. Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Cairo, Egypt.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq.
McClatchy Newspapers 2009