Hard-line cleric’s harsh words aimed at Iranian opposition

A high-ranking Iranian cleric close to both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sharpened the rhetoric against opposition supporters by giving religious justification for their killings in a fiery Friday sermon.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the hard-line Guardian Council of jurists and clerics that ratified Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in June, likened the opposition to Jewish tribes which he said long ago defied the founder of Islam.

“The prophet Muhammad signed nonaggression pacts with three Jewish tribes,” he told supporters gathered for prayer at Tehran University. “The Jews failed to meet their commitments, and God ordered their massacre.”

Iran’s hard-line government, dominated by fundamentalist Shiite Muslim clerics and the Revolutionary Guard, fears a rekindling of widespread protests on Feb. 11, during a parade marking the 31st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Jannati’s tough words, which echoed recent comments by ranking security officials, resembled the official discourse of the early years after that revolution, when thousands were executed in a successful quelling of political opposition to the new Islamic establishment.

On Thursday, two alleged members of an outlawed monarchist group were put to death and nine others were handed death sentences in what many interpreted as a warning to the opposition. Iran’s judiciary announced on its website that 16 defendants would be brought before a tribunal today in proceedings many suspect will resemble the much-criticized televised trials after the initial unrest in June over the controversial presidential election.

Trials, executions and warnings have failed to quell a rebellion supported by huge swaths of the population as well as sections of the political and religious establishment.

After 20-year-old Arash Rahmanipour was put to death Thursday, his father and lawyer denounced the execution as unjust and the court proceedings as a sham.

In an interview with English-language Al Jazeera International news channel, Rahmanipour’s father said he refused to accept condolences, only congratulations, as his son had died a martyr for the cause of Iranian democracy.

And in the eastern city of Zahedan, a Friday prayer leader denounced the executions.

“The increasing number of executions are worrying for our people,” Sunni Muslim cleric Molavi Abdul-Hamid told worshipers, according to the news website Zaman Online. “The death penalty cannot resolve the problems in the society and will even exacerbate them.”

The octogenarian Jannati cited the Koran and other Islamic teachings in justifying the killings of protesters. In recent weeks, the nephew of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi was fatally shot in the streets by suspected pro-government vigilantes and a pro-Mousavi scientist was killed in a bombing outside his home in a still-unsolved crime.

Jannati said that in the 7th century, Imam Ali, a cousin of Muhammad whom Shiites consider the sect’s founder, “ordered 70 unfaithful Jews murdered” despite his reputation as a kind and compassionate man.

“When it comes to suppressing the enemy, divine compassion and leniency have no meaning,” he said. “God ordered the prophet Muhammad to brutally slay hypocrites and ill-intentioned people who stuck to their convictions. The Koran insistently orders such deaths. May God not forgive anyone showing leniency toward the corrupt on Earth.”

Despite his bravado, Jannati’s sermon betrayed the government’s anxiety as it faces an opposition movement going strong after nearly eight months.

“Any time we show laxness we will suffer blows,” he said. “We will face a worse future if we show weakness today.”