The Times Reports on Iran Today

The remarkable continues to unfold in Iran:

As thousands of opposition protesters chanted in the streets of Tehran on Friday, the former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani assailed the government’s handling of the post-election unrest, saying it had lost the trust of many Iranians and calling for the release of hundreds of protesters and democracy advocates arrested in recent weeks.

Mr. Rafsanjani, speaking to a vast crowd at Tehran University that included the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi and many of his supporters, called for unity and reconciliation in his prayer sermon. But he also said doubts about the election “are now consuming us” and called for a new spirit of compromise between the opposition and the government.

Outside the university’s prayer hall, police officers used tear gas and truncheons to disperse large crowds of protesters chanting anti-government slogans, and there were reports of at least 15 arrests. It was the largest street gathering by opposition supporters in weeks, witnesses said.

Mr. Rafsanjani, a powerful insider who supported Mr. Moussavi’s campaign, did not directly question the election results, which have been blessed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he made clear that he believed Mr. Khamenei, who has blamed foreign powers for the unrest and called for an end to protests, should take a more conciliatory stance. Calling the election aftermath a “crisis,” Mr. Rafsanjani urged that restrictions on the press and on free speech be removed, in addition to the freeing of those detained since the election.

Mr. Rafsanjani also criticized the Guardian Council, a powerful supervisory body that is loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei and that looked into possible election fraud, saying it did not make the best use of the time the supreme leader gave it to investigate.

“A large group” of Iranians say they have doubts about the election, Mr. Rafsanjani said. “We should work to address these doubts.”

He said he had discussed a possible solution with members of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, two powerful state institutions he heads. He said his proposed solution was based on two principles: that everything must be done within a legal framework, and that there must be a free and open debate.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s proposal was an implicit rebuke to Ayatollah Khamenei, who tried to close the door on the post-election turmoil in his own Friday Prayer speech in the same hall three weeks ago. Ayatollah Khamenei has long presented himself as a neutral arbiter who sits above Iran’s political disputes, but many Iranians say his support for Mr. Ahmadinejad has made the supreme leader seem a more partisan figure.

In that sense, Mr. Rafsanjani, a consummate pragmatist and bitter rival of Mr. Ahmadinejad, appeared to be reclaiming a central role as a mediating figure in the top of the Iranian power structure.

Before he spoke, one witness said, large numbers of police officers blocked access to the university and fired tear gas into a crowd. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters sat in the streets about a mile back from the campus, cheering parts of Mr. Rafsanjani’s speech, heard over loudspeakers. Many women in the crowd did not wear the covering customary at prayers, the witness said.

One of the people arrested was Shadi Sadr, a prominent lawyer and activist, who was bundled into a car and beaten with batons by plainclothes security officers, Amnesty International and a witness said. Ms. Sadr managed to escape briefly but was recaptured and driven to an undisclosed destination, Amnesty said. Government militiamen beat some protesters after the tear gas was fired, and people started marching onto the streets, the witness said.

“People were silent and civilized, but they started demonstrating after the police shot tear gas,” the witness said. “It turned into another bloody scene. There were so many forces out there holding, and it was clear that they wanted to crush people again. There were so many people and so many forces that the protests spread to streets several miles away from the university.”