(Los Angeles Times) | February 22, 2010

In his first major comments since the opposition failed to gather large numbers of supporters for protests coinciding with the Feb. 11 anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi on Monday issued a bold challenge to the hard-line rulers of the Islamic Republic: Give the opposition permission to hold its own rally, and then let people see who’s got more supporters.

“Authorize us to rally to show them the difference between majority and minority,” Karroubi said in comments posted to his website, sahamnews.org. “We assure the authorities that no unconventional slogans will be chanted.”

Karroubi also took aim at the Guardian Council, the hard-line body of unelected clerics and jurists who vet all candidates for public office and laws for adherence to their interpretation of Islam. Karroubi proposed that the powers of the Guardian Council be put to a referendum.

“The ruling establishment intends to describe the Feb 11 as a referendum for endorsement of its violent and anti-human policies,” he said. “I propose a referendum to be held to lead the country out of crisis and spell an end to the sovereignty of the Guardian Council.”

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, leader of Iran’s Expediency Council, has also convened hearings to discuss the Guardian Council, which is led by octogenarian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who recently likened the opposition to defiant Jews who were killed by the Prophet Mohammad.

“The Guardian Council has meddled with people’s sovereignty under cover of arbitrary vetting process,” Karroubi said. “The Council’s interferences do not allow free and fair elections for people to choose an independent president, Assembly of Experts [which chooses the supreme leader] and parliament.”

The Guardian Council has for years been supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tool for keeping reformists at bay, and there’s little chance he would be enthusiastic about allowing a referendum on its powers. Khamenei and the hard-liners also probably believe they’ve got the opposition right where they want them, so they certainly aren’t going to give the opposition another chance to gather momentum by allowing them to stage a rally.

But the fresh comments and demands by Karroubi, along with Rafsanjani’s more discrete maneuvering and new criticisms by former President Mohammad Khatami’s (see below), keep the pressure on.

Read the full story in The Los Angeles Times.