TEHRAN, Iran — A backstage struggle among Iran's ruling clerics burst into the open Sunday when the government said it had arrested the daughter and other relatives of an ayatollah who is one of the country's most powerful men.
State media said the daughter and four other relatives of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani were later released, but their arrests appeared to be a warning from the hard-line establishment to a cleric who may be aligning himself with the opposition.
Tehran's streets fell mostly quiet for the first time since a bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, but cries of "God is great!" echoed again from rooftops after dark, a sign of seething anger at a government crackdown.
The official death toll has risen to at least 17 after a week of massive street demonstrations by protesters who say hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole his re-election win.
Police and the feared Basij militia swarmed the streets of Tehran to prevent more protests, and the government intensified a crackdown on independent media — expelling a BBC correspondent, suspending the Dubai-based network Al-Arabiya and detaining at least two local journalists for U.S. magazines.
English-language state TV said an exile group known as the People's Mujahedeen had a hand in street violence and broadcast what it claimed were confessions of British-controlled agents.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi warned supporters of danger ahead and said he would stand by the protesters "at all times." But in letters posted on his allies' Web sites Saturday and Sunday, he said he would "never allow anybody's life to be endangered because of my actions" and called for pursuing fraud claims through an independent board.
In the clearest sign yet of a splintering among the ayatollahs, state media announced the arrests of Rafsanjani's relatives including his daughter Faezeh, a 46-year-old reformist politician vilified by hard-liners for her open support of Mousavi.
"It is a clear message about where a continued direct conflict with the regime could lead," said Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst with the Century Foundation, a New York think tank.
Rafsanjani heads the cleric-run Assembly of Experts, which can remove the supreme leader, the country's most powerful figure. He also chairs the Expediency Council, a body that arbitrates disputes between Parliament and the unelected Guardian Council.
There has been speculation that Rafsanjani, who has made no public comment since the vote, may be working behind the scenes and favoring Mousavi.