Tens of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran Friday to hear the country’s most influential powerbroker pronounce the Islamic Republic in crisis, calling for the release of those arrested in recent pro-democracy demonstrations.

In a devastating attack on the regime, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading cleric and former President, told a crowd at Tehran University that the Government had lost the people’s trust. Referring to the handling of last month’s disputed election, which President Ahmadinejad claims to have won, he said that the custodians of the Islamic Revolution had undermined its basic principles.

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Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani condemned the brutal suppression of protests and called for the release of those detained during the post-election crackdown. The crowd acclaimed his address by chanting: “Death to the dictator” and “Leaders, give us arms”.

Police and pro-government Basij militiamen responded by firing teargas and using truncheons to break up the crowd, the largest street gathering in weeks. Mehdi Karoubi, one of the presidential candidates who claims that his votes were stolen last month, was assaulted by plainclothes militia.

At least 15 people were arrested, including the leading women’s rights campaigner and lawyer Shadi Sadr, who was beaten and dragged into a car in front of a crowd of her friends. “Shadi called me from an unknown location and said she was arrested by plainclothes officials who forcefully got her into a car,” her husband, Hossein Nilchian, said.

Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani’s sermon at the university, the cradle of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, came as a crucial opportunity to galvanize the embattled opposition, who believe that the election was stolen from the moderate challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Mr Mousavi’s attendance at Friday’s sermon was his first official public appearance in weeks. He has been under virtual house arrest, his communications monitored, closest aides arrested and news outlets closed.

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