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Burning of Ayatollah Khomeini's picture sparks uproar in Iran

Iran's supreme leader blames the anti-government protest movement. In turn, protesters say the incident was staged to make them look bad.

December 13, 2009|By Ramin Mostaghim

Reporting from Tehran — Political turmoil built today over the burning of an image of Iran's revolutionary founder, which was aired, in a controversial move, on state television. Accusations that the incident was carried out by anti-government demonstrators sparked protests as well as threats against reformist leaders.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei today said reformist politicians and anti-government demonstrators had defiled the image of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, during Student Day protests last week. He said the incident showed that the protest movement that sprang out of the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now sought to overturn the Islamic Republic.

Opposition supporters, however, said the incident was staged by hardliners loyal to Ahmadinejad and aired on TV to discredit their cause.

Tensions rose as police surrounded Tehran University, a hotbed of political activism, where students staged a protest rally today to convey their stand that they were not behind the burning. The official Islamic Republic News Agency said protests also broke out on other Tehran campuses. News agencies reported that Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition figurehead Mir-Hossein Mousavi, addressed the students.

Seminary students across the country on Saturday demonstrated against the burning of Khomeini's image. And 232 lawmakers supported a statement condemning the burning and praising state television for broadcasting the image.

Khamenei blamed reformist leaders for the incident. "They did their best to encourage people to confront the establishment, although they had not the power to finish the job," he told a group of clerics in a speech broadcast on state television.

Khamenei said enemies of the late Ayatollah Khomeini were "so encouraged that they came to the university and insulted the imam's picture."

Airing the footage could harm the protest movement, painting participants as bent on overthrowing the Islamic Republic. But the move also risks legitimizing radical opponents of the system whose stance rarely gets a public airing.

Khomeini's grandson, Hassan, a mid-ranking cleric, criticized state television for airing the footage, rather than the protesters for purportedly burning the image.

Iran is undergoing its worst political crisis in decades in the wake of the disputed presidential election, in which Ahmadinejad defeated reformists Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and conservative Mohsen Rezai amid charges of vote-rigging. Over the weekend, Mousavi's website,, and other reformist news outlets warned of his imminent arrest. But others say such fears are exaggerated.

"I do not think the system dares to arrest Mousavi or Karroubi, as it may lead to an explosion," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a liberal newspaper writer and analyst.

The supreme leader called on authorities to find out who was behind the burning of the picture but also asked security forces to remain calm. "Everything should be done calmly," he said. "It is not expedient to spread tension, riot and discord into society, because it is what the enemy wants."

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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