DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — A senior cleric who is close to Iran's supreme leader said in a Friday sermon that anyone who engaged in violence in protests over alleged fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should receive the "severest of punishments," according to state broadcasting.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a confidant of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described the unsanctioned public gatherings and rallies as being against Islamic law.
In the sermon, he described anyone taking part in "destructive acts" as muharib, enemies of God whose annihilation by true believers is religiously permitted.
"Anyone who takes up arms, be it guns or knives, is a muharib and Islam has said that muharib should receive the severest of the punishments," said Khatami, who shares a last name with a popular former reformist president but has opposite political views.
After refusing to grant demonstrators permission to protest election results, officials have increasingly cast those who massed in the streets for a series of peaceful rallies as extremists opposed to the government or dupes of antagonistic foreign leaders.
Khatami did not directly equate peaceful protesters with rioters, but most observers say that distinction may be lost on the club-wielding pro-government Basiji and Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilantes who have allegedly been beating demonstrators. Critics regard their actions as an attempt to terrorize dissidents into submission.
Instead, the cleric thanked the Basiji forces for their help in quelling unrest. Khamenei last week appeared to give such militiamen sanction to crack down violently on protesters, sparking fiery riots through central Tehran the following day.
Khatami also urged the courts to come down hard on those arrested in connection with the protests.
"I call on officials of the judicial branch to deal severely and ruthlessly with the leaders of the agitations whose fodder comes from America and Israel so that everyone learns a lesson from it," he said.
In Washington, President Obama offered his highest praise yet for Ahmadinejad's challenger, and said more strongly than before that his long-standing diplomatic goal of engagement with Iran could be affected by the election crisis.
"There is no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last several weeks," Obama said after a White House meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "And we don't yet know how any potential dialogue will have been affected until we see what's happened" in Iran.
Obama said that despite the Iranian government's crackdown on protests, the U.S. and its allies have a national security interest in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied that its nuclear program is aimed at building nuclear bombs.
The president says Iranians must determine the outcome of the country's election, but went further Friday in hailing Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the reform candidate who has continued to challenge the results.
In an earlier remark, Obama questioned whether Mousavi's election would affect key issues. Since then, Obama said, it's become clear that Mousavi has "captured the imagination" of pro-reform protesters.
"He has become a representative of many of those people who are on the streets and who have displayed extraordinary bravery and extraordinary courage," Obama said.
Around Iran on Friday, small groups of people released green and black balloons in symbolic acts of protest meant to honor Mousavi and those killed in the election aftermath.
Most independent analysts and Iran experts regard the results of the June 12 election, which Ahmadinejad claimed to have won in a landslide, as highly suspicious.
Western officials and the United Nations have decried a broad crackdown on dissidents and activists. Diplomats at a meeting of wealthy Group of 8 countries in Italy issued a statement condemning the violence in Iran.
Russia, often a backer of Iran, joined the West in noting some unease about the Iranian government's reaction to the unrest.
"Naturally, we express serious concern over the use of force, the death of civilians," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Trieste, Italy, according to Interfax news agency. "We do not interfere in the internal affairs of Iran, and we base our position on the principle that all issues that have arisen in the context of the election will be resolved in accordance with democratic procedures."
Khatami criticized Western leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as hypocrites. "You are a miserable fellow," he said, addressing Ban. Many children were killed in Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip this year, he said, adding, "You were not worried then?"
The election, which reportedly drew 85% of eligible voters, showed the "power and grandeur" of Iran's Islamic system, Khatami said, and he urged Iranians to let bygones be bygones.
"We should put aside the preelection resentments and act brotherly," he said. "We are one nation and one country. Let us not institutionalize grudges and instead institutionalize brotherhood and friendship against the foreigners who have prepared their sharp satanic teeth to loot the legacy of your martyrs."
Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and a special correspondent in Tehran contributed to this report.