A powerful Iranian cleric declared the nation in a state of "crisis" and tens of thousands of protesters were met with tear gas in the first major unrest to flare up in weeks following the disputed presidential election.
Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's strong words, delivered in Friday prayers at Tehran University, were in apparent defiance of Iran's supreme leader. Tens of thousands of government opponents packed Iran's main Islamic prayer service, chanting "freedom, freedom" and other slogans as Rafsanjani delivered a sermon bluntly criticizing the country's leadership over the crackdown on election protests.
"We are all members of a family. I hope with this sermon we can pass through this period of hardships that can be called a crisis," Rafsanjani said as he led weekly prayers for the first time since the June 12 vote.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the election, sat in the front row of worshippers, attending for the first time since the turmoil began. Many of the tens of thousands at the prayers wore headbands or wristbands in his campaign color green, or had green prayer rugs.
Outside, police and pro-government Basiji militiamen fired tear gas and charged thousands of protesters who chanted "death to the dictator" and called on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resign. Dozens were arrested, piled in trucks and taken away, witnesses said
In his sermon broadcast live on radio nationwide, Rafsanjani reprimanded the clerical leadership for not listening to people's complaints over the election, which was declared a victory for Ahmadinejad despite opposition claims of fraud.
"Doubt has been created (about the election results)," Rafsanjani said. "There is a large portion of the wise people who say they have doubts. We need to take action to remove this doubt."
Rafsanjani couched his sermon in calls for unity in support of Iran's Islamic Republic. But his sermon was an unmistakable challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who declared Ahmadinejad's victory valid and ordered an end to questioning of the results.
Rafsanjani, who backed Mousavi's election campaign, said many Iranians had doubts about official results that showed hardliner Ahmedinejad had won by a wide margin.
The pragmatic cleric, who heads the Council of Experts -- a powerful body that can in theory dismiss the supreme leader -- attacked the way authorities had handled the poll and its aftermath.
"When people are not in the scene and their votes are not there, that government is not Islamic," he said, referring to opposition charges of vote-rigging. "Today is a bitter day."
Rafsanjani said it was vital to restore voters' faith in the system. "That trust cannot be brought back in a day or a night ... We all have been harmed. Today more than ever we need unity."
At least 20 people and possibly hundreds died in post-election violence. Riot police and religious Basij militia eventually suppressed the street demonstrations, but Mousavi has remained defiant.
"The vigilant Iranian nation must be aware that tomorrow's sermon should not turn into an arena for undesirable scenes."
Mousavi says Ahmadinejad's next government will be illegitimate, even though Khamenei has endorsed the victory of his fiery protege.
The election has further strained ties between Iran and the West, already at odds over Tehran's nuclear program. Western powers criticized the protest crackdown and Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, accused them of meddling.