Reporting from Beirut — Iran's supreme leader Saturday told shadowy pro-government militias not to interfere in the nation's postelection unrest even as the head of the notorious Basiji militia warned that his forces would "jump into the fray" if authorities didn't act strongly against the opposition movement.
In his first public comments since protests last month that coincided with a major religious holiday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a rare attempt to ease tensions. Two days after gunmen with suspected ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard allegedly opened fire on the car of opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi, Khamenei urged all to abide by the law.
"Relevant bodies should fully respect the law in dealing with the riots and the ongoing events," he told clerics and seminary students bused to Tehran from the shrine city of Qom for an annual political commemoration.
"Those without any legal duty and obligations should not meddle with these affairs," he said. "Everyone should hold back from arbitrary acts and everything should go within the framework of the law."
But Brig. Gen. Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, the head of the Basiji militia, said many people across the country were ready to carry out their duties against what he called the desecraters of religious holidays.
"Now, all our people expect the security and intelligence organs as well as the judiciary to take action," he told the hard-line Fars news agency.
"People will jump into the fray if they feel these bodies are lax in their duties. People are critical of the laxness of security and judicial bodies against conspirators."
A sometimes violent seven-month crackdown on Iran's burgeoning opposition in the wake of the country's disputed June presidential election has failed to quiet the movement. On Saturday, students at Tehran's Sharif University of Technology staged a peaceful rally demanding the release of their classmates, video posted to the Internet showed. "Students would rather die than give in to tyranny!" they chanted.
Some Iranians within the political establishment, including former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, have voiced alarm about the nation's future and urged Khamenei to seek a compromise amid escalating rhetoric and tactics by supporters of the government and opposition.
They have been harshly criticized by hard-liners close to the Revolutionary Guard, who have urged merciless retribution similar to that meted out to the government's opponents in the first years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
On Saturday, Revolutionary Guard commander Brig. Gen. Abdollah Araqi proposed formally employing Basiji militiamen in "security-related" affairs.
"Most Basijis are not inclined to militarism, and so we have trained those interested in military activities separately within the framework of several battalions," he told Fars.
"The most-trained Basijis are now with Imam Hussein Battalions and their employment in security issues could be influential."
But some interpreted Khamenei's remarks as an attempt to cool political tempers and backtrack on previous threats to unleash the full power of the Islamic Republic's vigilante groups, including the Basiji and Ansar-e Hezbollah militias, against the opposition movement.
Khamenei has rarely offered olive branches to the opposition, which is gearing up for anti-government protests on the anniversary of the Islamic Republic, which falls this year on Feb. 11.
But Khamenei said Saturday that it was up to the judiciary, parliament and presidency to punish opposition protesters, urging "prudence and finesse" in dealing with the unrest and speaking out against arbitrary measures that might harm innocent people.