TEHRAN, Iran – More than 250 university teachers and writers added their voices to students' bold demands for democratic reforms in Iran, telling supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search) he must answer to the people and abandon the idea that he is God's unchallenged representative on Earth.
The reformists' statement, published Monday in the newspaper Yas-e-nou, was an encouraging sign for the students who demonstrated for about a week and even called for Khamenei's death before their protests were broken up by police and hard-line government backers.
Many Iranians are believed to be frustrated with the rule of Muslim clerics, but the cost of speaking out can be high, including prison sentences. Most Iranians looked on as protesters clashed with police and pro-clergy militants last week, and without support from other segments of society, the students have little hope of success or even maintaining momentum for demonstrations.
Those who signed the statement did so even though the protests were put down by violence and politicians who have made similar calls have been arrested in the past. The signatories included two aides to reformist President Mohammad Khatami (search): Saeed Pourazizi, an official in the president's office, and Saeed Hajjarian, who is widely regarded as the architect of Khatami's reform program.
The Bush administration endorsed the demonstrators, saying they "are asking to join the modern world," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. He said U.S. support is limited to that and nothing more.
"We've been concerned about the use of violence against the demonstrators," Boucher said. "It's time for the voices of the Iranian people to be listened to and heard."
On Sunday, President Bush said the protests showed a yearning for freedom. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi (search) criticized Bush for the remarks Monday, saying the comments reflect a "lack of knowledge or animosity and deep hostility" toward Iran.
"These remarks are a blatant interference in Iran's internal affairs," he said. Iran accuses the United States of playing a role in the demonstrations.
Asefi said his government delivered a formal protest to the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Tehran.
On Capitol Hill, 13 representatives led by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., introduced a bill Friday to provide U.S. assistance to democratic opponents of the Iranian government and to dissident broadcasts based in the United States.
The legislation also would impose a total embargo on import of Iranian goods and allow the president to reduce U.S. contributions to the World Bank and other institutions that assist Iran.
The ruling clerics say Khamenei is God's representative on Earth and therefore his edicts cannot be challenged. The intellectuals' statement published Monday said that in itself contradicted religious teachings.
"Considering individuals to be in the position of a divinity and absolute power ... is open polytheism [in contradiction to] almighty God and blatant oppression of the dignity of human being," the statement said.
"People [and their elected lawmakers] have the right to fully supervise their rulers, criticize them, and remove them from power if they are not satisfied."
The lawmakers also had warned that increasing U.S. threats against Iran since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq had made the situation worse for the ruling clerics.
Iran's regime has accused its old enemy, the United States, of increasing pressure at home and abroad, saying Washington was stirring up the anti-government protests as well as trying to turn the United Nations' international nuclear watchdog against it.
The administration is trying to organize world opinion against what it insists is an Iranian program to produce nuclear weapons.
In Vienna, Austria, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency urged Iran on Monday to allow more intrusive inspections of its nuclear-facilities to ease concerns that it is developing atomic weapons.
Mohamed ElBaradei's appeal before the International Atomic Energy Agency's board came 10 days after an internal report claimed that Iran failed to honor promises to disclose its use of nuclear material. The United States wants the agency to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Iran's chief representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, told reporters before Monday's meeting that "this whole issue has been politically motivated and politically charged."
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iran's Islamic government and the United States have had no diplomatic relations since 1979, when, after helping topple the U.S.-backed shah, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took its occupants hostage.