Iran's Top Leader Endorses Election

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.
By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 20, 2009

TEHRAN, June 19 -- Iran's supreme leader on Friday put his full authority behind the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rejecting allegations of vote fraud and declaring that foreign "enemies," including the United States, were behind a week of massive street demonstrations.

By placing his personal seal of approval on the election's official result, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei significantly raised the stakes for Iran's political opposition, which must now either concede the election or be seen as challenging the supreme leader himself. So far, opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and his supporters have questioned the validity of the June 12 election but not the country's theocratic system of governance.

In a dramatic speech before thousands of worshipers at a Friday prayer service, Khamenei warned that the leaders of the protests will be held "directly responsible" for any bloodshed that results from continued demonstrations.

The prospect of a violent crackdown poses a quandary not only for the Iranian opposition but also for the Obama administration. U.S. officials said Khamenei's speech would not change President Obama's hands-off approach toward Iran's internal turmoil or his policy of seeking dialogue with Iran on its nuclear program and other critical issues. But they said that violent repression could force a reevaluation of Obama's overtures to Tehran.

Iran's government should "recognize that the world is watching," Obama said Friday in an interview with CBS News. How Iranian leaders "deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard" will signal "what Iran is and is not," he said, adding that he was concerned by the "tenor and tone" of the supreme leader's speech.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly passed nonbinding resolutions expressing support for the rights of the Iranian demonstrators. Republicans sought to portray the votes as criticism of the president's response to the events in Iran, but the administration publicly welcomed the congressional action. "It's consistent with what the president has said," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Gibbs added, however, that the United States will continue to try to avoid entanglement in the Iranian debate.

"We're not going to be used as political foils and political footballs in a debate that's happening by Iranians in Iran," he said. "There are many people in the leadership that would love us to get involved, and would love to trot out the same old foils they have for many years. That's not what we're going to do.

"Our interests remain the same," Gibbs continued. "We're concerned about the Islamic republic living up to its responsibilities, as it relates to nuclear weapons."

In a sign hours after Khamenei's remarks that at least some Tehran residents rejected his warnings, people took to their rooftops after dark across the city and chanted slogans such as "Death to the dictator" and "Allahu akbar," or "God is great." Their chants were similar to those at rallies this week against Ahmadinejad and in favor of Mousavi. And the rooftop tactic recalled a method that was used to voice anti-government sentiment three decades ago, during the opposition movement that ultimately succeeded in ousting the shah of Iran.

Mousavi, who appeared at a massive demonstration in South Tehran on Thursday to back his demands that the election be annulled, has called for another march Saturday in downtown Tehran. The 67-year-old former prime minister did not attend Khamenei's speech and did not immediately react to it publicly.

Pro-Mousavi Web sites were not updated, leaving it unclear whether the demonstration would be canceled or go ahead as planned, setting up a potential confrontation if security forces are ordered to intervene.

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