TEHRAN, Iran — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the prosecution of Iran's top opposition leaders Friday, backing hard-liners pushing for escalation of the postelection crackdown.
Ahmadinejad's speech reflected the increasing bitterness of what has become Iran's most tumultuous political crisis in decades.
While there were calls for unity in the weeks following the disputed June presidential election, the confrontation between the clerical leadership and the opposition has begun to look increasingly like an all-or-nothing fight.
Hard-liners in the leadership paint the entire reform movement as a tool of foreign enemies bent on overthrowing the cleric-led Islamic Republic. The opposition counters that the ruling system – beyond just Ahmadinejad's elected government – is losing its religious and political legitimacy because of the harshness of the postelection crackdown.
More than 100 prominent opposition politicians and activists have been on trial on charges of seeking to topple the clerical leadership through a "velvet revolution." But so far, the top rung of the opposition – Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the June 12 election, and his allies Mahdi Karroubi and former President Mohammad Khatami – have not been touched.
Arresting them would dramatically escalate the confrontation. Earlier this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed to rule out doing so, saying he saw no evidence the top opposition leaders were "stooges" of foreign enemies. The comments suggested Khamenei, who has strongly backed Ahmadinejad, was wary of provoking an even more widespread public backlash against his leadership.
Powerful forces, however, are pushing for their arrest, including senior hard-line clerics in the ruling establishment and commanders of the Revolutionary Guard.
For the first time, Ahmadinejad joined their calls in a speech before a crowd of thousands at Tehran University ahead of weekly Friday prayers.
He said those on trial were "second-tier" elements who had been misled into organizing postelection protests in support of Mousavi. They should be treated with "Islamic mercy," he said, while those higher up should be punished.
"There must be a serious confrontation with the leaders and key elements who organized and provoked (the riots) and carried out the enemy's plan. They have to be dealt with seriously," he said, without naming the leaders.
With the call, Ahmadinejad took a tougher line than Khamenei, his political patron. Khamenei has final say in all political matters in Iran but he often has to balance between factions – particularly those within Iran's conservative bloc.
The usually cautious Khamenei already has paid a price for backing Ahmadinejad in the election dispute, which damaged his reputation as a neutral arbiter, so he may be hesitant to allow the arrests of Mousavi and his allies. But hard-line clerics and the Revolutionary Guard seem intent on harder action.
Hard-liners have already called for the two main pro-reform political parties to be dissolved, raising cries from the opposition that they aim to crush their voice.
In one of his strongest denunciations yet of the country's leadership, Khatami said the alleged torture of protesters arrested in the crackdown showed the true nature of the ruling system.
"Is this the merciful Islamic image that defends morality and the people's basic rights?" said Khatami, a senior opposition figure, in a Web statement posted late Thursday.
He lashed out at hard-liners, saying they were accused of "treason" in the public's eyes because of the fraudulent vote.
"The sacred Friday prayer podium has been given to those who ... call for the punishment of prominent (reformist) figures ... while they are accused in the eyes of the public for committing treason themselves," he said, referring to hard-line clerics who have denounced the opposition during Tehran's main Friday prayers, one of the country's most potent political platforms.
Khatami said the claims that the postelection protests were organized by foreign powers only hurt the leadership in the public's eyes.
Hundreds of thousands joined street protests after the election, supporting Mousavi's claims of fraud, until security forces, the Revolutionary Guard and the pro-government Basij militia crushed the demonstrations with a crackdown in which hundreds were arrested. The opposition says at least 69 people were killed and that many of those detained were abused, tortured and even raped in prison.
The opposition has dismissed the month-old trial of opposition figures and activists as a "show trial" in which defendants were forced to make public confessions admitting to a plot.
Even as Ahmadinejad moves toward hard-liners in the crackdown, he faces a challenge from some within his own conservative camp who have expressed reservations over the fierceness of the wave of arrests. His conservative rivals are led by parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who got a show of support from the supreme leader this month when his brother Sadeq Larijani was named head of the judiciary.
(This version CORRECTS the spelling of the supreme leader's name).)