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Top Iranian Opposition Leader Mousavi Challenges Supreme Leader

Iran's top opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi is challenging the government once again Saturday and calling for an anti-government rally to prove the strength of his opposition Green Movement. The call comes just days after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Mousavi and other opposition leaders that they were now excluded from the regime.

Mousavi's challenge to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to allow opposition forces to demonstrate is a clear act of defiance. It follows the Ayatollah's harsh words, several days ago, to the Assembly of Experts, pronouncing opposition leaders officially outside the regime.

"I and [fellow opposition leader Mehdi] Karroubi," he insisted, "think the Green Movement should be allowed to hold a rally and put an end to speculation [about our movement's strength]." He also argued that a February 11th pro-government rally was "staged" with the help of an "unprecented" show of police and security forces," said Mousavi.

He likened the government rally to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution to official gatherings under the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. "There is no pride to such a gathering," he stressed, because it "uses the tyrannical methods and logic [of the Shah's regime]."

The mere appearance of Mousavi's words from an interview on his Kalemeh website is a show of strength against the government which has systematically muzzled the opposition press, imprisoned journalists, and waged a noisy propaganda campaign to drown out all other voices.

Mousavi's decision to throw down the gauntlet against the supreme leader quickly drew the applause of many supporters on his Facebook website, alongside enthusiastic comments on a myriad of other opposition sites.

Former Iranian President Abolhasan Bani Sadr, who lives in exile in Paris, called Mousavi's statement a clear break with the regime.

He calls Mousavi's statement a direct act of defiance to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, along with Mehdi Karroubi's challenge several days ago to hold a referendum. This, he says, follows [Ayatollah] Khamenei's declaration several days ago, before the Assembly of Experts, that they were now expelled from the regime. He argues that Mousavi is challenging Ayatollah Khamenei by warning the Ayatollah not to silence him or to kill him, because he will go on defying him.

The former president asserts that the Iranian government is "now at war with its own people" after its "unprecedented use of security forces" to quell anti-government protests on Feb. 11.

Alex Vatanka of Janes' Defense Analyst thinks that the opposition Green Movement was out-manoeuvred by the government on Feb. 11, but that it still has strong, latent support.

"I think that a lot of people don't want this regime to be there. I think a majority-now I don't want to exaggerate how large that majority is - but that majority has always been there. They've been waiting for the catalyst, for the leadership, and that wasn't really in place for a long time, came about after June of last year, simply because people like [Assembly of Experts chief Hashemi] Rafsandjani and others, very much resourceful regime players, found themselves, or decided to be in the opposition. They provided that leadership," said Vatanka.

Vatanka argues that the Iranian government under Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad appears to have become "overconfident" after foiling opposition demonstrations on Feb. 11. "They exaggerated on a massive scale, talking about 50 million supporters on the streets, which is just an unbelievable claim," he insists, "so now, the opposition is saying "Hang on. Don't get carried away. Let's not forget that we're still here."