Amid Impasse, Rivals Rally in Iran

After a hotly contested election pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, the government declared Ahmadinejad the winner on June 13. Mousavi's supporters took to the streets to protest the results, and were met with harsh security crackdowns.

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

TEHRAN, June 16 -- Tens of thousands of Iranians demonstrated Tuesday for the third straight day as government authorities confronted an increasingly polarized public and an extraordinary political stalemate with no obvious solution.

Iran's ruling clergy agreed to a limited recount of ballots from last week's disputed presidential election shortly before supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, held competing rallies two hours apart in Tehran.

President Obama also seemed to offer more public support for the anti-government demonstrators in a country that poses one of his greatest foreign policy challenges.

"I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past," Obama said at the White House, in a clear reference to Ahmadinejad, who has clashed forcefully with world leaders over Iran's nuclear program.

While saying it was "not productive" for the U.S. president to be seen as meddling in Iranian affairs, Obama expressed "deep concerns about the election."

"When I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me, and it's of concern to the American people," he said. "That is not how governments should interact with their people."

Obama has been careful not to be seen as openly supporting the demonstrators for fear that Iranian officials could portray them as U.S.-backed pawns, and some in Washington have criticized him for not speaking out more forcefully. On Tuesday, he repeated his earlier statements that the resolution to the conflict was "ultimately for the Iranian people to decide." "But I stand strongly with the universal principle that people's voices should be heard and not suppressed," he said.

Seeking to tamp down the protests -- the largest unsanctioned demonstrations in Iran since the nation's 1979 revolution -- without resorting to massive force, authorities on Tuesday clamped tight restrictions on foreign journalists and Iranians who work for international news organizations. They are barred from recording, photographing or attending street demonstrations and ordered to report on events only by telephone, without leaving their offices, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance said.

The Iranian government previously tried to cut off social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The new restrictions followed extensive international media coverage of a massive march through Tehran on Monday by Mousavi supporters, which was largely peaceful until after dark, when a few hundred protesters attempted to burn a militia compound and members of the Basij paramilitary force opened fire from a rooftop.

State radio said seven people were killed, the first official death toll since the Interior Ministry declared Ahmadinejad the winner of Friday's election and Mousavi's backers alleged widespread fraud. State television blamed the unrest on "anti-revolutionary" forces and said the "main agents" behind the protest movement had been arrested with "significant amounts of weapons and explosives." But it did not identify those arrested or provide other details.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for a partial recount in a televised meeting with representatives of Ahmadinejad, Mousavi and two other presidential candidates. It was another turnabout for Khamenei, who endorsed Ahmadinejad's victory over the weekend, then backtracked Monday and ordered the Guardian Council, a 12-member panel of senior Islamic clergy and jurists, to investigate allegations of election fraud.

"If investigating the problems requires the recounting of some ballot boxes, this should also certainly be done," Khamenei said Tuesday.


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