Iranâ€™s Supreme Leader dramatically raised the stakes in his countryâ€™s political crisis today by demanding an end to the massive street demonstrations and warning of a violent crackdown if they continued. He also accused "treacherous" Britain of leading a western conspiracy to destablise the Islamic Republic by fomenting the protests.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s uncompromising speech raised fears that he could unleash his formidable security forces on a mass protests as early as tomorrow, when tens of thousands of opposition supporters are expected to defy him by joining a Tehran rally organised by reformist clerics.
His words caused widespread alarm. European leaders meeting in Brussels demanded the regime "refrain from the use of force against peaceful demonstrations". Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, urged Iran not to go "beyond the point of no return". Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, feared the "illegal use of excessive force".
Speaking for the first time since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hotly-disputed re-election, Ayatollah Khamenei sided firmly with the president, denied the vote was rigged, and accused foreign powers led by Britain of fomenting the protests to destabilise the Islamic Republic.
Addressing Friday prayers at Tehran University, the bearded septuagenarian offered no concessions to the millions of irate Iranians who have taken to the streets this week. Instead he issued an unmistakable warning to Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the defeated candidates.
"Those politicans who have influence on people should be very careful about their behaviour if they act in an extremist manner," he said. "This extremism will reach a level which they will not be able to contain. They will be responsible for the blood, violence and chaos."
"The Supreme Leader has drawn a line in the sand, and he has the muscle to back it up," one Iranian analyst said. "His speech was a polite way of saying ‘Hey – there’s a coup and we’re in charge.’ It was an absolute declaration of power."
Mr Mousavi did not respond immediately to Ayatollah Khamenei’s 90-minute televised sermon, but the Supreme Leader made clear that the former prime minister would be cast from Iran’s political establishment, and perhaps arrested, if he did not drop his demands for a new election. The threat appeared to extend to his backers, the former presidents Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami.
Mr Karroubi, a former parliamentary speaker, responded with an open letter demanding a fresh election, and denounced government repression.
"Accept the Iranian nation’s will by cancelling the vote and guarantee the establishment’s survival ," he said.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s hardline sermon was greeted with roars of approval from thousands of zealous supporters bussed in to the university for a stage-managed show of strength.
But protestors said they would attend today’s rally come what may. "If the crowd is large enough there’s nothing they can do," Bahrooz, an engineer, said. "If they start killing people that would bring about the fall of the regime."
"All my friends are coming and they’re bringing their families," Taraneh, an office worker, said. "How many people can they arrest or kill?"
The speech also angered the British government, which Ayatollah Khamanei called the "most treacherous" of Iran’s enemies. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in London to protest. Gordon Brown insisted it was "right for us to speak out for human rights, to speak out against repression, to speak out in condemnation of violence."
With Mr Ahmadinejad sitting in the front row, Ayatollah Khamenei described last Friday’s elections as "epic" and "historic". He said the massive 85 per cent turnout showed how much the Iranian people trusted their political establishment, and the superiority of Iran’s religious democracy.
Ayatollah Khamenei said foreign powers were now conspiring to ruin that achievement, and to destroy the Iranian people’s confidence in their political leaders, by spreading lies about vote-rigging.
"Some of our enemies intended to depict this absolute victory, this definitive victory, as a doubtful victory," he said. "It is your victory. They cannot manipulate it."
The Islamic Republic would never commit "treason" by rigging the vote, he continued. Referring to Mr Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory, he asked: "How can one rig 11 million votes?"
Ayatollah Khamenei demanded the demonstrations stop. "I want to tell everyone these things must finish. These street actions are being done to put pressure on leaders but we will not bow in front of them," he said. "I call on all to put an end to this method…If they don’t they will be held responsible for the consequences and chaos."
He ordered the losing candidates to "open their eyes" and see behind the demonstrations "the enemy hands working, the hungry wolves waiting in ambush".
He blamed the deaths and violence of the past week on "ill-wishers, mercenaries and elements working for the espionage machines of Zionism and western powers".
Mr Mousavi and Mr Karroubi have been invited to present their charges of electoral fraud to the Guardian Council, a body of senior clerics, today, but nobody expects it to order the re-run Mr Mousavi wants. "There’s no way it’s going to overturn an 11 million majority," said the analyst.