Iran's opposition leaders have requested permission to hold a memorial service at Tehran's main mosque on Thursday for victims of last month's post-election unrest, among them a young woman who became an icon of the struggle against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "stolen" victory. The appeal, signed by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, the reformist leaders who contested the election, came as local media reported that a second young man arrested during pro-democracy protests this month died in jail.
The regime is likely to view yesterday's memorial request as a renewed challenge, fearing that mourning gatherings could ignite further protests. A day earlier, Mr Mousavi and Mr Karrubi joined Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, in beseeching Iran's senior-most clerics to prevent "oppression" by the regime against hundreds of detained protesters. The continued reformist challenge came as Mr Ahmadinejad remained under fire from his own hardline supporters after he appointed a controversial crony as his chief of staff just hours after being forced to accept the man's resignation as his first vice president.
In a sign of related turmoil in his own camp, the president sacked four ministers just days before he announces his new cabinet, several local news agencies reported yesterday. Mr Ahmadinejad's line-up of new ministers is likely to be hardline, given that moderate figures will want to distance themselves from his tainted election "victory", analysts said. The families of slain protesters have been banned from holding large services in public while at least one man has been arrested for publicising his son's death. The opposition leaders want to hold the ceremony at the capital's "Grand Mosala", a prayer location where tens of thousands can gather. Mr Mousavi and Mr Karrubi attempted to ease concerns that the requested memorial could trigger further unrest, saying it "will be held without any speeches and will be limited to the reciting of the Quran".
A top aide of Mr Mousavi, whom millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of the elections, said the request was sent to the interior minister, Sadeq Mahsouli, to commemorate the end of the 40-day mourning cycle for at least 10 people killed on June 20. Among them was Neda Agha Soltan, a 27 year-old woman whom witnesses said was shot dead by a basij militiaman during a demonstration in Tehran. Her dying moments were caught on a video and the harrowing footage viewed by millions on the internet. Her family was not allowed to hold a formal funeral.
In a notable exception, however, the regime allowed the public funeral of a protester on Friday when the son of a senior adviser to the defeated conservative presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezai, a former leader of the elite Revolutionary Guards, was laid to rest. The funeral of Mohsen Ruholamini, 25, was attended by senior figures, among them conservative members of parliament. His father had tried for several days to find his son, who was arrested during protests on July 9, which marked the 10th anniversary of a student uprising that was brutally suppressed by gloating security forces. He eventually found his son's battered body in a hospital morgue. A mourning ceremony for Mr Ruholamini due to take place yesterday was cancelled by his family to avoid any unrest, an Iranian news agency reported.
The family of another young man arrested during the July 9 protests was asked yesterday to collect his battered body from a prison in the city of Qazvin, where Amir Javadifar had been a student of industrial management, the reformist daily, Etemad, reported. Police have said at least 20 people have been killed since the June 12 elections, although human rights groups believe the true figure is far higher.
The opposition on Saturday issued a robust appeal to senior religious figures in Qom, Iran's clerical nerve centre, urging them to defend the rights of post-election detainees and stop the regime's "illegal, immoral and irreligious" crackdown on dissent. A letter signed by Mr Mousavi, Mr Karrubi and Mr Khatami said the authorities have held protesters and activists without charges. It demanded: "What legal, Islamic or human rights code can justify the repeated torture of those who live under the banner of Islam?"
The missive was addressed to nine clerics who, as marja-e-taqlid, or sources of emulation, outrank Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran's Shia religious hierarchy. Only one of these has congratulated Mr Ahmadinejad on his electoral victory while three others lambasted the ferocious crackdown that ensued. A united response from the clerics in Qom would rob the regime of vital religious backing. It has already lost popular legitimacy because of the disputed elections and is relying increasingly on security forces, in particular the elite Revolutionary Guard, for its authority.
The letter declared that: "The only way out of this situation is to release all detainees and put an end to the security state imposed after the election." It went on to compare the regime's iron-fisted clampdown to that of the autocratic, US-backed late Shah of Iran. Separately, Mr Karrubi also sent a letter to Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, who was Iran's intelligence minister until he was sacked yesterday, in which he described the crackdown as worse than the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.
"Everyone has seen how women have been beaten with batons and thrown to the ground - this is worse than what the Zionist criminals are doing to the oppressed Palestinian people," Mr Karrubi wrote. His words were particularly potent as the Iranian regime frequently condemns Israel's policies in the occupied territories. Mr Ahmadinejad meanwhile buckled to pressure of a different sort in a self-inflicted row that has wracked his own hardline rump of the regime - but was still under fire from his supporters yesterday. The president had infuriated his allies by appointing as his first vice president Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who became a bęte noire of the fundamentalists after making a friendly comment about Israel. Despite a letter dated July 18 from Ayatollah Khamenei ordering Mr Mashaie's removal, the president stood by his crony and relative. He relented only on Saturday when the supreme leader's letter was made public. Even then, Mr Ahmadinejad allowed his friend the dignity of resigning rather than being sacked. Within hours, however, he appointed Mr Mashaie as his chief of staff.
One agency said the dismissal of Mr Ejehi followed a "verbal quarrel" with the president over Mr Mashaie. It was reported yesterday that Mr Ejehi had shelved plans to broadcast videotapes of some detainees "confessing" to plotting a revolution. An early indication of the character of the new government will come if Mr Ejehi's replacement decides to press ahead with broadcasting what millions of Iranians - and human rights activists abroad - regard as false confessions extracted under torture.