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IRAN: Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi challenges hard-line authorities to a duel of rallies

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In his first major comments since the opposition failed to gather large numbers of supporters for protests coinciding with the Feb. 11 anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi on Monday issued a bold challenge to the hard-line rulers of the Islamic Republic: Give the opposition permission to hold its own rally, and then let people see who's got more supporters. 

"Authorize us to rally to show them the difference between majority and minority," Karroubi said in comments posted to his website, sahamnews.org. "We assure the authorities that no unconventional slogans will be chanted." 

Karroubi also took aim at the Guardian Council, the hard-line body of unelected clerics and jurists who vet all candidates for public office and laws for adherence to their interpretation of Islam. Karroubi proposed that the powers of the Guardian Council be put to a referendum.

"The ruling establishment intends to describe the Feb 11 as a referendum for endorsement of its violent and anti-human policies," he said. "I propose a referendum to be held to lead the country out of crisis and spell an end to the sovereignty of the Guardian Council."

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, leader of Iran's Expediency Council, has also convened hearings to discuss the Guardian Council, which is led by octogenarian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who recently likened the opposition to defiant Jews who were killed by the Prophet Mohammad.

"The Guardian Council has meddled with people's sovereignty under cover of arbitrary vetting process," Karroubi said. "The Council's interferences do not allow free and fair elections for people to choose an independent president, Assembly of Experts [which chooses the supreme leader] and parliament."

The Guardian Council has for years been supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's tool for keeping reformists at bay, and there's little chance he would be enthusiastic about allowing a referendum on its powers. Khamenei and the hard-liners also probably believe they've got the opposition right where they want them, so they certainly aren't going to give the opposition another chance to gather momentum by allowing them to stage a rally. 

But the fresh comments and demands by Karroubi, along with Rafsanjani's more discrete maneuvering and new criticisms by former President Mohammad Khatami's (see below), keep the pressure on.

Karroubi described the Feb. 11, or 22 Bahman, celebration marking the anniversary of the revolution as a farce.

"Through state television and their state-run mouthpieces, hard-liners and violence-seekers are covering up their savagery during the 22 Bahman rally in order to exploit the massive turnout of people for their political ends," he said. "Military and security forces had transformed Tehran into a military barrack. State media did not carry even a single image of their military campaign, firing teargas and beating people. They wrongly imagine they can push ahead with their project of denying people their sovereign rights."

Karroubi drew a stark contrast between hard-liners' vision and that of his more moderate camp.

"One tendency is to be afraid of people's right to hold gatherings and rallies," he said. "This tendency only tolerates the presence of its own supporters in official rallies and considers other people, even though a majority, as dust and dirt. The other tendency recognizes everyone as part of the Iranian nation, regardless of gender and religious, tribal or cultural affiliations," Karroubi said.

Also Monday, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist allied with Karroubi, criticized recent tightening of media restrictions and jailing of journalists that have made Iran one of the largest, if not the largest, prison for news-gatherers in the world.

"Our Constitution stipulates that nobody is allowed to restrict political and social freedoms under pretext of establishing security," Khatami told the families of political prisoners in comments posted Monday to the website of his charitable foundation, Baran. "A major challenge is that one newspaper is muzzled overnight and many journalists lose their jobs. But worse is the existence of 'pseudo-press' enjoying full immunity to lie."

He added, "It is no honor for the government to imprison so many journalists. I warn that the regime will be on the receiving end of these painful behaviors."

-- Los Angeles Times

Photo: Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, right, and Mehdi Karroubi attend a conference in Tehran in 2008. Khatami and Karroubi, both leaders of Iran's opposition, issued statements Monday. Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images
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