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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.

But another opposition presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, implicitly defied Khamenei's stand, publicly supporting Mousavi's position by calling on Iran's powerful Guardian Council on Friday to nullify the election and order another one. In an open letter to the council, which is charged with confirming the election results, Karroubi urged its members to "accept the will of the nation" and throw out results announced by the Interior Ministry showing a landslide win for Ahmadinejad. The council has said it would investigate irregularities supported by evidence, but it has ruled out annulling the election.

Khamenei, 69, a Shiite Muslim cleric who holds ultimate political and religious authority under Iran's theocratic system, emphatically backed that view Friday. He told tens of thousands of people who spilled out of a covered pavilion at Tehran University that the election is over, and he expressed confidence in the vote tallies.

"Some of our enemies in different parts of the world intended to depict this absolute victory, this definitive victory, as a doubtful victory," he said. "It is your victory. They cannot manipulate it.

"The competition is over," he declared in response to calls for nullification. "Over 40 million people voted; they voted for the Islamic republic.

"The margin between the candidates is 11 million votes," Khamenei continued. "If it is 500,000, maybe fraud could be of influence. But for 11 million, how can you do that?"

He said the protests would not change the Iranian system.

In a warning to protest organizers, the supreme leader said, "If the elite breaks laws, they will be held responsible for violence and bloodshed."

He warned Iranians not to cause problems, because "Iran is at a sensitive juncture." And he asserted that foreign governments, especially the United States and Britain, were encouraging the opposition.

"American officials' remarks about human rights and limitations on people are not acceptable because they have no idea about human rights after what they have done in Afghanistan and Iraq and other parts of the world," Khamenei said. "We do not need advice over human rights from them."

Khamenei said the Guardian Council is looking into complaints of voting fraud. The council, a 12-member panel of senior Islamic clergy and jurists, has invited the four presidential candidates to a meeting Saturday to discuss their concerns about the balloting.

But Khamenei's comments rejecting significant irregularities appeared to preempt the council's probe. As Khamenei arrived to lead the Friday prayers, a sea of fists punched the air, and thousands of supporters roared their greetings: "Our blood in our veins is for you, O Leader!" Khamenei smiled, raising his hand, which was resting on the barrel of a gun, to calm the audience.

High officials sat cross-legged on a green carpet in a cordoned-off area in front of the stage. A choir of young men in suits sang a cappella. The rows quickly filled up with turbaned clerics, members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and influential politicians.

The crowd cheered as Ahmadinejad came in, late. Khamenei nodded at him as the president bowed forward with his hand on his chest. Ahmadinejad occupied a place of honor, sitting just behind the spot where Khamenei would lead the prayers.

Banners hanging from the pavilion roof bore messages such as "Don't speak to us with the tongue of old imperialism, BBC" and "Westerners get away from us."

In Washington, a senior administration figure called Khamenei's speech "a significant statement," adding, "The question is what becomes of it." He said that the protest movement has "taken on a life of its own" but that where it goes next remains unclear.

Another official dismissed criticism of Obama from U.S. conservatives who want him to publicly endorse the demonstrations. "I don't think we feel a lot of pressure to go a different way," the official said. "We're trying to promote a foreign policy that advances our interests, not that makes us feel good about ourselves."

A third official said the events in Iran were part of regional changes, noting the opposition's movement from preelection concerns about the Iranian economy to what could become a challenge to the country's theocratic system. "I think something bigger is going on," the official said, citing the recent defeat of the Hezbollah-led coalition in Lebanese elections and the sight of "people bravely speaking their minds in Iran."

The administration officials all emphasized that they want to keep the United States out of the Iranian debate. But, as one noted, "the United States has an important place in their historical narrative."

Obama has repeatedly denied that the United States is "meddling" in Iranian politics. But in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, Obama said he hoped "the regime responds not with violence, but with a recognition that the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy are ones that should be affirmed."

Khamenei on Friday compared Obama's comments about Iran to the tragic conclusion of the Branch Davidian standoff with federal agents in Waco, Tex., during President Bill Clinton's administration. The leader of that group, David Koresh, and at least 74 supporters died in a fire at their compound. A federal probe concluded that the Davidians committed suicide, but survivors said it was started by tear gas rounds fired by government agents into the buildings.

"People affiliated with the Davidians were burned alive," Khamenei said. "You were responsible -- the Democrats. The administration was angered and 80 were burned. And do you know the true meaning of human rights? The Islamic Republic of Iran is the flag-bearer of human rights. We defend the oppressed."

Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Lexie Verdon in Washington contributed to this report.

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