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Grandson jeered off podium at Khomeini anniversary ceremony

Seyed Hassan Khomeini was forced to abandon a speech yesterday at a ceremony marking the 21st anniversary of his grandfather's death after being drowned out by jeering pro-government hardliners.

TEHRAN // Seyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution, was forced to abandon a speech yesterday at a ceremony marking the 21st anniversary of his grandfather's death after being drowned out by jeering pro-government hardliners. It comes just over a week before Iran marks a year since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed presidential victory that saw millions take to the streets in protest.

Mr Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the main speaker at yesterday's ceremony, used their speeches to condemn the country's opposition movement, accusing them of betraying the ideals of the Islamic republic's founding father. Opposition leaders, including Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karrubi and former President Seyed Mohammad Khatami - all of them close to the late Ayatollah Khomeini - were noticeable absences from the event, which took place in an erected pavilion at the shrine of the revolutionary leader.

As Mr Khomeini, who is widely believed to support the opposition Green Movement, tried to deliver his speech, the crowd, composed mainly of regime loyalists, chanted "down with Mousavi"and slogans in support of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. Another chant expressed support for the Hizbollah leader Seyed Hassan Nasrallah, calling him "the [real] grandson of Khomeini". State television, which broadcast the entire ceremony, also showed many people walking out on the speech.

Before leaving the podium, Mr Khomeini, a 38-year-old mid-ranking cleric, had called for the protesters to let him speak. "People loath the small group that is creating disorder," he told the crowd. "Please allow me to speak for a few minutes, because what this small group is doing doesn't befit the dignity of the Imam [Khomeini]." When the chanting grew louder, Mr Khomeini, visibly upset but maintaining his composure, said a short prayer and left the podium.

After last year's disputed presidential election, Mr Khomeini made a public statement of his dissatisfaction with Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election. And along with Mr Mousavi, Mr Karrubi, Mr Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he had refused to attend the president's inauguration ceremony. Mr Rafsanjani did attend yesterday's ceremony and was seen sitting beside Mr Khomeini. The anniversary ceremony for Ayatollah Khomeini is held at his shrine - a stately, gold-domed mausoleum with four towering minarets - in south Tehran every year and is always attended by top-ranking officials and hundreds of thousands of followers from around the country.

Mr Khomeini has been the custodian of his grandfather's shrine since the death of his father Ahmad Khomeini in 1995. In Mr Ahmadinejad's speech yesterday he lashed out at opposition leaders and accused them of having abandoned the "path of Imam [Khomeini]". "According to the imam, preserving the regime is of the highest importance ? I am sorry to say that those who are tarnishing the reputation of the Islamic republic cannot claim to be followers of the imam," Mr Ahmadinejad said to loud cheering.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who led prayers after a lengthy sermon, also accused the opposition of "deviating from the path of the imam". "It is not possible to express sympathy with those who are against the fundamentals of Imam [Khomeini's] tenets and to stand beside them, to praise them ? and say we are followers of the imam," he said. Green Movement supporters are planning renewed street protests on the anniversary of last year's election, resulting in a warning from Mr Ahmadinejad that "those who confront the regime will be banished by our nation".

The authorities have stepped up pressure on the opposition by arresting more moderates in recent days in a bid to deter efforts to organise fresh anti-government protests. msinaiee@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters