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.
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.