The ayatollahs are on edge for another round of street demonstrations Friday, June 17, but this time, they are anxious to make the trouble go away firmly but painlessly. Their security forces have been ordered to refrain from killing civilians, so avoiding the widespread outrage provoked by their brutal suppression of the street protests after Iran's June 12 presidential election.
The cause of their anxiety is the return of ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most powerful foe, to the principal preacher's podium at Tehran University this Friday. He will be breaking a month's silence.
The Friday sermon at Tehran University is one of the hallmarks of the Islamic regime. During its halcyon days, a million men and women would gather to seek guidance from the top officials privileged to use this platform to lead the prayers and deliver the Friday sermon. One of these officials is supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; Rafsanjani another.
According to rumors swirling around Tehran this week, Rafsanjani has resigned his preacher's duties prior to withdrawing from all his public functions and leading the protest movement. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Tehran who spoke with the former president's friends say the rumors are untrue and he will preach this Friday.
This expectation has sparked an upsurge of guesses about his message. The heads of the regime are less troubled by Rafsanjani's sermon and more by the intention of the three avowed opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami to put in their first combined appearance in public in the front row. Their presence is considered explosive enough to whip up a fresh conflagration in the capital.
Who is behind the hit squad?
The numbers will be there. Opposition channels of communication and hundreds of spontaneously-formed groups have appealed to Iranians to turn out for the prayer meeting in Tehran University, a mass demonstration which security forces would not dare disperse by force.
Rafsanjani, a wily survivor of much internal Islamic revolutionary warfare, will almost certainly avoid directly criticizing his rival Ahmadinejad – certainly the supreme leader. Instead, he will make a case for national reconciliation and ask for an olive branch to placate the opposition. But should he venture across this line, he will not leave the podium alive. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that a team of professional assassins will be standing by – just in case.
When Khamenei heard this, he summoned President Ahmadinejad for an explanation, but the president said his hands were clean and he had no idea who had hired them – mindful of the supreme ruler's strict directive not to harm Rafsanjani's person or property.
On call too are large numbers of Revolutionary Guards and Basijj thugs to prevent protest activity exploding into mass demonstrations. This won't be easy: The protesters will not be shouting political but religious slogans, such as “ALLAH-O AKBAR” (God is Great), YA HOSSEIN, MIR HOSSEIN (a cry that ties the opposition leader with the Imam Hussein, one of Shia Islam's great martyrs).
The cauldron at the Friday prayer could boil over when the thousands of supporters Ahmadinejad has called up to attend the Tehran University prayer service shout slogans in his support.
The end of the service, when the crowds begin to disperse, will be break-out point. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of inflamed followers on both sides could easily come to blows.
A rising tide of popular and clerical disaffection
Any ally of the president, Mohammad Karim Shahrzad, has warned Rafsanjani to refrain from provocative language. Another cleric, Hojjat-ol eslam Ghodrat-ollah Alikhani, this one a Moussavi partisan, prepared to celebrate “an historic day in the annals of the revolution.”
The opposition leaders are preparing to capitalize on the worst sin committed by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in the turbulent aftermath of the election: the shedding of Iranian blood by fellow Iranians.
Dozens of protesters were killed in the riots, most of them young. Their families grieve openly, gather supporters and call for the blood of their loved ones to be avenged. Mourning rites for the deceased were banned in the early days of the troubles, but are now permitted by the authorities in an effort to cool the unrest.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Tehran report that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad camp is growing concerned by the disapproving aloofness of senior clerics.
The newspaper Ettemad-e Melli wrote in its editorial Wednesday: “While Hassan Nasrallah, Hugo Chavez and Bashar al-Assad were quick to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his electoral 'victory', no senior cleric in Iran offered felicitations.”
In the medrassas of the holy city of Qom, cradle of Iran's Islamic revolution, teachers are openly critical of the president and the supreme leader, accusing them of acting against Islamic and Shiite religious law by robbing Moussavi of 12 million votes for Ahmadinejad. “This theft a true Muslim cannot accept,” say posters plastered this week on the walls of Qom.
Will opposition clerics relocate to Iraq?
The disaffection is such that a number of prominent clerics and preachers are reported to be preparing to desert Qom and move with their medressas to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf in southern Iraq, or Mashad in northern Iran.
Their defection would seriously undermine the standing of both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, an earth tremor that could accelerate their downfall. For four hundred years, Qom was Shiite Islam's greatest center of religious learning after Najaf. The flight of top ayatollahs from Qom would detract from the regime's legitimacy.
Three high-ranking clerics have publicly condemned the murder of civilians and called upon the people to support Moussavi. They are Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, and Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi.
Another major sermon to be delivered in Beirut by Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah on Friday, July 17, will also affect the state of play in Tehran.
If the head of Iran's Lebanese proxy comes out in support of Ahmadinejad, it will mean that the main revolutionary Shiite force outside Iran backs the president and Ali Khamenei.
But if not, the two leaders will drop another notch in their standing.