Opposition Leaders Defy Iranian Authorities, Call Ahmadinejad Government Illegal

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 2, 2009

TEHRAN, July 1 -- Three opposition leaders, including a former president, openly defied Iran's top political and religious authorities Wednesday, vowing to resist a government they have deemed illegitimate after official certification of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection.

Their defiance in the face of harsh official denunciations and threats of arrest and prosecution appeared to dash the government's hopes of pressuring the opposition into accepting the disputed June 12 election.

Rather than dropping his complaints of extensive vote-rigging, leading opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi took his fight to a new level Wednesday, risking arrest by urging followers to continue their protests. After formal certification of the election results Monday night by the Guardian Council, a top supervisory body of Shiite Muslim clerics and jurists, Iranian authorities warned that no further protests would be tolerated.

Mousavi, 67, a former prime minister, was joined in his dismissal of the official results by two other opposition leaders: presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, 71, a cleric and former speaker of parliament, and Mohammad Khatami, 65, a cleric who served as president for eight years before Ahmadinejad, now 52, was first elected in 2005. They also called for the annulment of the June 12 vote and the continuation of protests, although Khatami's remarks were not as tough as those of the two candidates.

The three made clear that they do not oppose Iran's system of religious government, but they charged that the country is turning into a dictatorship. The government regards Mousavi and Karroubi as bad losers who are ignoring a legal election result and are trying to overthrow the system by organizing a "color revolution" similar to those that swept away governments in Eastern and Central Europe this decade.

There was no immediate response by authorities, but Morteza Agha Tehrani, an influential pro-government member of parliament, was quoted by a local news agency as saying that some lawmakers would soon file a court case against Mousavi.

The opposition's persistence appeared to put the government in a bind. If Iran's top leaders order the arrest of Mousavi and the political and religious figures who support him, they risk further undermining the country's complex system of religious and democratic governance. But if they allow Mousavi to continue calling for protests and challenging the election results, they could jeopardize the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other key figures who have backed Ahmadinejad's reelection.

Political factions and some grand ayatollahs, senior Shiite religious leaders with tens of thousands of followers, have voiced disapproval of the violent response to street protests and have called on authorities to heed demonstrators' complaints.

"There has been a velvet revolution against the people and against the republicanism of the system," Khatami said during a meeting with families of war casualties, according to a Web site associated with his faction. "A big segment of society has lost all trust in the system, and this is a disaster."

A leading moderate party formed by reformers close to Khatami, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, called the election a "coup d'etat" and the result "unacceptable."

In Tehran late Wednesday, tens of thousands of residents shouted "Allahu akbar!" (God is great) from their balconies and rooftops, a form of protest supporting Mousavi and Karroubi. But the only traffic on the capital's normally bustling streets appeared to be special police patrolling in black SUVs. Main squares all over the city were empty, witnesses said, although Wednesday night is the traditional start of the Iranian weekend.

The country's text-messaging service, turned off since the day before the election, resumed Wednesday, with Tehran's residents sending one another carefully formulated messages to avoid attracting official attention.

Meanwhile, Iran's national police chief, Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, announced that detained protesters "have been sent to the public and revolutionary courts in Tehran." He said that 1,032 people were detained during post-election unrest and that most have been released.

The police chief also said that 20 "rioters" were killed after the election, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported. He said that no police officers died but that more than 500 of them had been injured. "The police behavior toward the illegal gatherings staged during the final days of unrest was completely legal," Fars quoted him as saying.

For his part, Ahmadinejad canceled a planned trip to Libya on Wednesday to attend an African Union summit, the Foreign Ministry announced.

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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