TEHRAN, Iran – A backstage struggle among Iran’s ruling clerics burst into the open Sunday when the government said it had arrested the daughter and other relatives of an ayatollah who is one of the country’s most powerful men.
State media said the daughter and four other relatives of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani were later released but their arrests appeared to be a clear warning from the hardline establishment to a cleric who may be aligning himself with the opposition.
Tehran’s streets fell mostly quiet for the first time since a bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, but cries of “God is great!” echoed again from rooftops after dark, a sign of seething anger at a government crackdown that peaked with at least 10 protesters’ deaths Saturday.
The killings drove the official death toll to at least 17 after a week of massive street demonstrations by protesters who say hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole his re-election win. But searing images posted online – including gruesome video purporting to show the fatal shooting of a teenage girl – hinted the true toll may be higher.
Police and the feared Basij militia swarmed the streets of Tehran to prevent more protests and the government intensified a crackdown on independent media – expelling a BBC correspondent, suspending the Dubai-based network Al-Arabiya and detaining at least two local journalists for U.S. magazines.
English-language state television said an exile group known as the People’s Mujahedeen had a hand in street violence and broadcast what it said were confessions of British-controlled agents in an indication that the government, vilifying the opposition, was ready to crack down even harder.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi warned supporters of danger ahead, and said he would stand by the protesters “at all times.” But in letters posted on his allies’ Web sites Saturday and Sunday, he said he would “never allow anybody’s life to be endangered because of my actions” and called for pursuing fraud claims through an independent board.
The former prime minister, a longtime loyalist of the Islamic government, also called the Basij and military “our brothers” and “protectors of our revolution and regime.” He may be trying to constrain his followers’ demands before they pose a mortal threat to Iran’s quixotic system of limited democracy constrained by Shiite clerics, who have ultimate authority.
His chances of success within the system would be far higher if he has backers among those clerics.
In the clearest sign yet of a splintering among the ayatollahs, state media announced the arrests of Rafsanjani’s relatives including his daughter Faezeh, a 46-year-old reformist politician vilified by hard-liners for her open support of Mousavi.
State media said Rafsanjani’s relatives had been held for their own protection.
“It is a clear message about where a continued direct conflict with the regime could lead,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a regional affairs analyst with the Century Foundation, a New York think-tank . “By going after family members, they have sent a warning as to the stakes involved and the price to be paid if Rafsanji refuses to be quiescent.”
Rafsanjani heads the cleric-run Assembly of Experts, which can remove the supreme leader, the country’s most powerful figure. He also chairs the Expediency Council, a body that arbitrates disputes between parliament and the unelected Guardian Council.
Rafsanjani and his family have been accused of corruption by Ahmadinejad. And the 75-year-old ayatollah was conspicuously absent Friday from an address by the country’s supreme leader calling for national unity and siding with the president.
That fueled speculation that Rafsanjani, who has made no public comment since the election, may be working behind the scenes and favouring Mousavi.
The Assembly of Experts has not publicly reprimanded Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since he succeeded Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. But this crisis has rattled the once-untouchable stature of the supreme leader.
Protesters have openly defied his orders to leave the streets and witnesses said some shouted “Death to Khamenei!” at Saturday’s demonstrations – a once unthinkable challenge.
At least some lower-ranking clergy also appeared to have broken with the supreme leader. Photos posted by a moderate conservative news Web site showed what appeared to be mullahs in brown robes and white turbans protesting alongside a crowd of young men, some wearing the green shirts or sashes symbolizing Mousavi’s self-described “Green Wave” movement.
The images and others flooding out from Iran in recent days could not immediately be independently verified due to government restrictions on foreign media, who were banned from reporting on Tehran’s streets.
Ahmadinejad appeared to be courting his own clerical support. State television showed him meeting with mullahs at the presidential palace and telling them the election had demonstrated popular love for the regime.
He criticized British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama, who on Saturday urged Iranian authorities to halt “all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”
“With that behaviour you will not be among Iran’s friends,” Ahmadinejad said, in a potentially ominous sign for Obama’s recent efforts to warm relations with Iran.
Strengthening Ahmadinejad’s position, Iran’s military issued a thinly veiled warning to Mousavi after days of silence.
“We are determined to confront plots by enemies aimed at creating a rift in the nation,” said Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid, acting joint chief of the armed forces.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki accused Britain of sending spies to manipulate the election, blasted France for “treacherous and unjust approaches” and said Germany had unfairly criticized Iran’s government.
Blaming foreign conspirators is a staple of Iranian government rhetoric that resonates for many in a country with a long history of manipulation by Britain, the U.S. and other powers.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband “categorically” denied his country was meddling and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Iran anew to conduct a complete and transparent recount.
“This can only damage Iran’s standing in the eyes of the world,” Miliband said.
The British Broadcasting Corp. said its Tehran-based correspondent, Jon Leyne, had been asked to leave the country but its office remained open. Newsweek said journalist Maziar Bahari, a Canadian citizen, had been detained without charge and LIFE reported the arrest of the photojournalist who took an iconic photograph of a young woman in a headscarf making a “V for victory gesture at the camera as white smoke roiled in the background. It did not reveal the photographer’s name.”
Reporters Without Borders said 23 journalists had been arrested during the past week.
There were unconfirmed reports of small demonstrations and clashes Sunday, and stores were closed in Tehran neighbourhoods that saw violence the day before. Life appeared to be normal in other parts of Tehran on Sunday, a weekday in Iran, but experts cautioned that it could be a brief lull and not the end of Iran’s worst internal turmoil in three decades.
Weissenstein reported from Cairo.