TEHRAN (Reuters) - A hardline Iranian cleric accused the pro-reform opposition on Saturday of seeking the removal of key pillars of the Islamic state, including the office of the supreme leader, and of trying to plunge the country into crisis.
"What they are after is to have a thin layer remaining of the Islamic Republic," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said in a speech in the holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Qom, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Separately, hundreds of theological students staged a rally in downtown Tehran to protest against an "insult" to late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, official media said. Similar events were also held in other Iranian cities.
State television has broadcast footage of what it said were opposition supporters tearing up and trampling on a picture of Khomeini during anti-government demonstrations on December 7.
A nationwide rally on that day to mark the killing of three students under the Shah turned violent when pro-reform students clashed with security forces armed with batons and tear gas in the largest such protests in months.
Backers of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi were seeking to renew their challenge to the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad six months after a disputed election, which reformers say was rigged in the hardline incumbent's favor.
The authorities have rejected vote fraud charges and portrayed the huge pro-Mousavi protests that erupted after the June presidential poll as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the Islamic state's clerical leadership.
"They are after an Islamic Republic without Islamic jurisprudence and without the Guardian Council," Khatami said, referring to the institution of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a powerful 12-member legislative body.
Khatami said the "conspirators" were aiming for four different crises: a crisis of legitimacy for the Islamic system, of unity, trust and management.
Earlier this week, a senior judiciary official said Iran would "show no mercy" toward opposition protesters seen as threatening national security, a comment underlined by a spokesman for the Guardian Council on Saturday.
"The Guardian Council condemns the bitter incidents of insults against the late Imam (Khomeini) and calls upon officials to deal very severely with the perpetrators," ISNA news agency quoted Abbasali Kadkhodai as saying.
Khomeini spearheaded the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979 and remains widely revered in Iran.
Iranian daily Jomhuri Eslami said Mousavi condemned the "insult" toward Khomeini. "No just and pious human being would allow himself to do such a thing," he was quoted as saying.
State television showed pro-government rallies in different cities, with people chanting: "Death to America" and "Death to opponents of the Supreme Leader."
The June election plunged Iran into deep political turmoil and exposed deepening establishment divisions.
Thousands of Mousavi supporters were detained after the vote, including senior reformers. Most have been freed, but about 80 people have received jail terms of up to 15 years and five have been sentenced to death over the post-vote unrest.
Writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Matthew Jones