The delivery was mild, but the words were incandescent: now Iran's protesters know exactly where they stand. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally spoke on the crisis gripping his nation yesterday, and while he had emollient words for presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, his threats were explicit.
He demanded an end to the protests that have brought millions on to the nation's streets this week, insisted that their cause was wrong, that his ally Ahmadinejad was the election's rightful winner, denied there was any possibility that the election had been rigged, and warned of fearful consequences if the people come out in force again today. "The result of the election comes from the ballot box, not from the street," he said. "If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible."
Amid all that, he even found time to place Britain in his own version of George Bush's famous axis, calling Britain the "most evil" of Western governments – a move that prompted the Foreign Office to summon the Iranian ambassador and lodge a protest.
But Britain's reaction was hardly the point. The Ayatollah, successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian revolution, speaks in public very rarely and yesterday's speech was the theocratic regime's strongest bid yet to halt the protests. Friday prayer is the holiest moment of the week, the central Tehran mosque was crammed with the faithful, the preacher's face was artfully lit for television cameras: all remnants of the regime's tattered legitimacy were mustered to lay down the law, insisting on an end to the greatest and most ominous wave of unrest since the revolution which brought the ayatollahs to power 30 years ago.
He offered no concessions and his message was simple: surrender or face the bloody consequences. The question now is: can this be enough to snuff the uprising out? Yesterday evening an ally of Mousavi told Reuters: "Mousavi has no plans to hold a rally tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, and if he decides to hold a rally it will be announced on his website." But all these words from the top of the hierarchy may not be enough to halt the steamroller of revolt. One Iranian analyst commented: "I've got the sense that there is a lot of momentum in the rebellion now."
If they choose defiance, the rebels will again wrap themselves in the green of their religion, insisting with every gesture that they are loyal to the revolution, if no longer to the original revolutionaries. The same commentator said that one sure sign of defiance will be if they come out onto their rooftops at night – as the revolutionary students did 30 years ago – and cry "God is great!" Today they threaten to come onto the streets with Korans in their hands, inviting martyrdom – as the Islamic revolutionaries of 1979 did when they defied the troops of the Shah, holding pages of the holy book. If they do that, the message will be unmistakeable. The ghosts of their own past are coming back to haunt these grizzled clerics, and they don't seem to have a clue how to exorcise them.
In another fateful sign yesterday, the internet was abuzz with purported "orders" given to Revolutionary Guards – the crack troops of the regime – to slaughter the rebels, with the names and even phone numbers of the guards involved. "These are the people who are going to come and kill us," ran the messages. There is no way of authenticating such rumours, but the mood is increasingly doom laden. Some of the rebels are inviting the worst with a kind of gloomy relish.
Yesterday Khamenei strove to strike the same commanding chords as his charismatic predecessor. In words that belied his grandfatherly tone he blasted the infidel world, attacking the "interference" of foreign powers that questioned the result of the election and even reviving the hoary but apparently unquenchable Iranian loathing of Britain.
But the loudest thunderclaps were reserved for the protesters.If they don't stop protesting, he warned, "they will be held responsible for the chaos and the consequences." Soon we will learn the nature of their response.
Addressing the nation: How the Supreme Leader put on a show
To deliver a speech that lasted more than 90 minutes was an exceptional act for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose public pronouncements are very rare: he normally speaks only two or three times a year, preferring to exert his authority less directly. It was his first public appearance since the election, and many Iranians who set great store by his views will have been waiting to hear what he had to say. The beginning of the speech was religious in content, emphasising the Supreme Leader's religious authority to those listening. And, of course, the speech was delivered from the pulpit.
In a bitter irony, the venue for the address was Tehran University's mosque – on the same campus where, only a few days earlier, a pro-government militia is alleged to have killed students who supported Mousavi. But the mosque has been a centre of religious and political activity in Tehran for the past 30 years, and the campus is also a place of powerful symbolism for Iranians. It was the venue of the first great victory of the Islamic Revolution, and it carries strong associations of the overthrow of the hated Shah. The connection is one that can only serve to bolster Khamenei's message.
Friday prayers also carry great rhetorical weight because of the memories they bring with them. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the service was regularly broadcast to the troops serving on the front lines – a powerful patriotic reminder for the families of the million or more who died. *THE AUDIENCE
The Ayatollah spoke to an audience of tens of thousands. The Revolutionary Guard made up a large proportion of the attendees; photographs only show men because the genders are separated for Friday prayers. At one point, attendees broke into cries of "Mard bar Ingles" – "Death to Britain". Senior politicians were also amongst those present. Mahmoud Ahmadinehjad was there, to hear the Ayatollah declare that the two men shared views; so was Ali Larijani, Speaker of the parliament; but, apparently, opposition candidate Mirhossein Mousavi was not.
The speech was broadcast on national television, and watched by millions – as well as being piped into mosques across the country, so that Iranians at Friday prayers could listen to their leader's words.