By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
TEHRAN, June 23 -- The Iranian government stepped up pressure Tuesday on opponents challenging the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, setting up a special court to try detained protesters, carrying out new arrests and launching a campaign to publicly vilify those calling for a new vote.
Authorities also formally rejected the opposition's demands to annul the disputed June 12 presidential election on grounds of massive fraud and set a deadline of mid-August for Ahmadinejad's inauguration and the confirmation of his new cabinet.
But in an apparent effort to assuage the opposition, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, agreed to give a powerful supervisory body an additional five days to review the complaints of fraud.
President Obama's remarks Tuesday on the tumult seemed to strike a chord with at least some opposition supporters in Iran.
In an affluent North Tehran neighborhood, where people watched Obama's White House news conference on a big-screen satellite television, one woman commented: "He is following the right line. He should not give the regime an excuse to blame the U.S. for the protests."
Reporters "should grill him on human rights," a man said of Obama, while trying to work around censored Web sites on his computer.
On a day of relative calm after security forces broke up protests Monday, the government vowed to make an example of detained "rioters" and teach them a lesson. Hundreds of Iranians have been arrested in the past 10 days since the Interior Ministry declared that Ahmadinejad outpolled his nearest rival, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, by nearly 2 to 1. Mousavi has vowed to continue protesting despite a government ban on demonstrations and a public warning from Khamenei.
Truckloads of police in riot gear deployed at Tehran's main squares Tuesday to prevent a recurrence of the protests, and there were no signs of significant opposition gatherings.
A senior official of Iran's judiciary, which is controlled by the ruling Shiite Muslim clerics, said Tuesday that a special court would try detained protesters, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.
"Those arrested in recent events will be dealt with in a way that will teach them a lesson," the official, Ibrahim Raisi, was quoted as saying. "The rioters should be dealt with in an exemplary way, and the judiciary will do that." Raisi did not elaborate.
State-run Iranian radio has reported that more than 450 people were detained in clashes with security forces around Tehran's Azadi Square on Saturday, when 10 people were killed and at least 100 wounded. In addition, according to international advocacy groups, dozens of Iranian journalists have been arrested.
Despite acknowledged irregularities, Iran's Guardian Council, which is responsible for confirming election results, ruled out a new vote, saying the problems were not serious enough to change the outcome.
"If a major breach occurs in an election, the Guardian Council may annul the votes that come out of a particular affected ballot box, polling station, district or city," council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai said, according to state-run news media. "Fortunately, in the recent presidential election we found no evidence of major fraud or breach in the election. Therefore, there is no possibility of an annulment taking place."
The council has agreed to a random recount of 10 percent of the ballots, but Mousavi and another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have rejected the overture.
The council also asked Khamenei, who holds ultimate political and religious authority in Iran, to give it five more days to examine opposition complaints, extending a deadline that was to expire Wednesday. The council chairman, Ahmad Jannati, requested the extension "in order to remove any ambiguity" over the election results, state media said.
Khamenei approved the extension Tuesday.
There was no indication, however, that authorities were backing off their support for Ahmadinejad's reelection, which Khamenei effectively endorsed in a televised sermon during Friday prayers last week.
Moreover, a parliamentary board announced Tuesday that Ahmadinejad would be sworn in for his second term between July 26 and Aug. 19. Lawmakers will also review credentials of cabinet ministers during that period, IRNA reported.
And in an apparent effort to discredit the opposition, state television broadcast interviews with "rioters" who confessed to being influenced by Western news media.
A semiofficial news agency allied with Ahmadinejad also harshly denounced a group of Shiite religious figures close to former president Mohammad Khatami. The semiofficial Fars News Agency said members of the group, the Association of Combatant Clerics, were acting like "Zionists" and monarchists and "have now officially joined the anti-revolutionaries," a term used for enemies of Iran's political system.
In a letter, the group wrote that "the people of Iran, who with thousands of hopes, wishes and excitement came to voting boxes, are now gathering the bodies of their youth out of blood and soil, and are in mourning. Should these justice-seeking objections be answered with bullets that rip through the hearts of their children?"
In an indication of splits within the Majlis, or parliament, a group of 24 lawmakers summoned Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli to answer questions about what they described as the government's crackdown on reformists, including a nighttime raid early last week on student dormitories at Tehran University. The raid, in which student protesters were beaten and dorm rooms ransacked and burned, was carried out by pro-government militiamen, officials have acknowledged.
The lawmakers chastised Mahsouli for failing to identify and arrest the attackers and for "a lack of crisis management," the state-run Press TV reported.
Branigin reported from Washington.