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.
The supreme leader, who has been far more visible than usual in the wake of the election, also played down the stakes in the disputed election. "Voters had different leanings, but they equally believe in the ruling system and support the Islamic republic," he said.
A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, maintained that the election "had one of the lowest rates of irregularities ever." But he raised the possibility that the council's investigation, which he said is expected to take seven to 10 days, could result in the nullification of the results and the holding of a new election, as Mousavi has requested.
"That is not implausible," Kadkhodai said, according to Mehr News, a semiofficial Iranian news agency.
The proposal for a partial recount was met without enthusiasm by the opposition candidates. A senior aide to Mousavi dismissed it as "useless." The aide, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, said an independent commission should look into the "widespread violations," and he called for the election to be held again.
For the third time in as many days, Tehran was the scene of huge rallies. Ahmadinejad's supporters gathered in midafternoon at the city's Vali Asr Square, preempting plans by Mousavi's supporters to rally there later in the day. State television provided full coverage of the pro-Ahmadinejad demonstration, including aerial images of a crowd that appeared to number in the thousands, plus close-ups of people holding portraits of the Iranian president in the air.
Ahmadinejad himself was in Moscow, where he said nothing about Iran's problems, focusing instead on the United States. "America is enveloped in economic and political crises, and there is no hope for their resolution," he said, according to the Associated Press.
At the pro-Ahmadinejad rally, a former speaker of parliament, Gholamali Haddad-Adel, drew cheers by declaring that the city of Tehran -- one of the few places where Mousavi officially won more votes than Ahmadinejad -- does not represent all of Iran. He also accused Mousavi of planning in advance to dispute the election.
Two hours later, Mousavi's supporters converged on Vanak and Tajrish squares in affluent northern Tehran, where the opposition candidate has strong support. Unlike Monday's massive march, participants said, Tuesday's pro-Mousavi rally was silent, as protesters mourned the deaths that had occurred the night before.
Holding up their fingers in the V-for-victory sign, the protesters walked quietly toward Iran's sprawling state television complex. Its main gate was closed, and riot police were waiting behind the barrier, eyewitnesses reported.
Also Tuesday, more than 50 members of parliament requested an inquiry into allegations that plainclothes security officers and members of the Basij, which is allied with the Revolutionary Guard Corps, attacked Tehran University dormitories over the weekend. University officials have said students were beaten and their rooms ransacked, but it issued a statement denying that five students were killed.
According to unconfirmed reports, more than 170 opposition figures and dissidents have been rounded up since the election. Shahabnews, a pro-Mousavi Web site, issued a list of 42 people it said were still in custody Tuesday. State television also reported that Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and adviser to opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi, had been arrested.
Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington and special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.