BEIRUT, Lebanon — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned political leaders on Monday to be cautious in addressing the country’s recent unrest, in an apparent rebuke to two former presidents who have openly criticized the government’s handling of the disputed June 12 presidential election.
Ayatollah Khamenei, in a meeting with government officials that was broadcast by state television, kept his remarks vague, warning darkly against “a hand that wishes to strike at the system,” and saying the political elite could “collapse” if it does not adequately meet the challenge it faces.
But his comments made clear that the country’s governing elite was not backing down in the face of an emboldened opposition movement that rejected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s landslide re-election as fraudulent and mounted renewed street demonstrations in recent days.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks appeared to be aimed at two former presidents who had taken up the mantle of Iran’s opposition in recent days: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Mr. Rafsanjani, the powerful cleric who leads two important state institutions, said Friday that the government had lost the trust of many Iranians, and he urged the release of the protesters arrested in the street demonstrations of recent weeks. Mr. Khatami expanded on those comments on Sunday, calling for a referendum on the government’s legitimacy.
Those remarks posed a clear challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei, who had hailed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory as fair last month and blamed the unrest — Iran’s worst internal conflict in decades — on foreign agitators and journalists.
Ayatollah Khamenei spoke contemptuously of the protesters on Monday, saying: “It is a mistake to believe that a limited group of people, in Tehran only — setting fire to rubbish bins, to public property, to motorbikes, to their cars, to their banks — are people. These are not people.”
Another comment seemed aimed squarely at Mr. Rafsanjani, who declined to say in his speech on Friday that the coming government would be legitimate, as hard-liners had urged him to do.
“Everyone should proceed with extreme vigilance with respect to their stance, both in what they say and in what they do not say,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “Not speaking is the same as not fulfilling our responsibilities.”
The Guardian Council issued its own response on Monday to Mr. Rafsanjani, who had accused it of not properly reviewing concerns about election irregularities. Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the council’s spokesman, said it had done everything possible to investigate the election results and remove any lack of public trust, Iran’s Press TV reported. He said Mr. Rafsanjani had done nothing to ease the situation, despite efforts to seek his advice.
Also on Monday, Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leading opposition challenger to Mr. Ahmadinejad, visited the families of people arrested in the crackdown of recent weeks, telling them they were “not alone” and lashing out at the state news media for maligning them, reformist Web sites reported.
“A government that comes into power in an environment of mistrust and tricks will be a weak one,” Mr. Moussavi said, according to the Web sites. “This is the kind of government that gives concessions to foreigners because it doesn’t have popular support.”
Mr. Moussavi spoke a day after several hundred antigovernment protesters took to the streets in the southern city of Shiraz, reformist Web sites reported. More opposition protests are expected across Iran on Tuesday, the anniversary of huge street protests in 1952 to reinstate Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, widely viewed in Iran as a national hero. Mr. Mossadegh was removed the following year in a coup backed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In a break from the past, opposition Web sites were calling Monday for the protests on Tuesday to take place in southern Tehran, which is mostly working class. The Iranian opposition has often been caricatured as an elitist movement that has support only in the more affluent northern part of the capital.