By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
TEHRAN, Aug. 3 -- Iran's supreme leader formally blessed a second term for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday in a religious ceremony that exposed a deep schism in the Islamic republic's hierarchy and that prompted scattered street protests.
The sober ceremony, in which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accepted an awkward kiss on the shoulder in a show of fealty from Ahmadinejad, was notable for the absence of prominent political and religious figures; relatives of the country's late revolutionary leader; and opposition presidential candidates, who continue to dispute the results of the June 12 election.
Afterward, witnesses reported unrest in central Tehran, and security forces deployed to prevent government opponents from demonstrating against a second four-year term for Ahmadinejad. Riot police and pro-government Basij militia turned out in force on main streets and squares, where groups of protesters attempted to gather and where motorists honked car horns in a show of opposition, witnesses said.
"I heard people honking in their cars, and security forces shot tear gas," said one witness in a phone call from a shop on Vali-e Asr Street. "Everything became chaotic. There was shooting, and I saw them arresting an old woman."
The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that opposition presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi showed up at a demonstration against the inauguration, joining about 100 supporters at a street intersection before riot police broke up the gathering. Iranian state television charged that Karrubi, 71, a Shiite cleric and former parliamentary speaker, was "egging on the hooligans," who chanted slogans such as "Death to the dictator!"
Clashes were also reported in northern Tehran, where hundreds of protesters were forcibly dispersed by club-wielding police and Basij militiamen, news agencies reported.
Monday's ceremony, the constitutionally required religious portion of the presidential swearing-in, paved the way for Ahmadinejad to take the oath of office before the Iranian parliament on Wednesday. He will then have two weeks to present cabinet ministers to the parliament for confirmation. Authorities are bracing for more potential confrontations with protesters after the oath-taking.
Notably absent from the ceremony were two influential Shiite clerics and former presidents: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads two top supervisory bodies in the Iranian governing system, and Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's immediate predecessor.
Other no-shows included Karrubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition presidential candidate. Mousavi, 67, a former prime minister, charges that massive vote-rigging led to Ahmadinejad's landslide reelection with nearly 63 percent of the vote.
Relatives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, also passed on the ceremony. According to pro-opposition Web sites, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson who usually attends such ceremonies, left for Pakistan days ago to avoid this one. Among missing religious dignitaries were two Friday prayer leaders from the Shiite holy city of Qom, the Parlemannews Web site reported.
It was not immediately clear whether the absentees boycotted the event or were not invited.
Because Khatami did not attend, Khamenei presented Ahmadinejad with his presidential decree directly, in a break with previous practice.
"Iranian people have voted in favor of a fight against arrogance, to confront destitution and spread justice," Khamenei said. "I confirm their vote and appoint this courageous, hard-working and vigilant man as the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran." He called on Iranians to be on guard against "the enemies of the revolution and the enemies of Islamic Iran."
In his own remarks, Ahmadinejad did not address the post-election unrest, which has generated the largest street protests since the 1979 revolution. But he appeared to dismiss the opposition movement and delivered a new warning to the foreign governments that he blames for the turmoil.
Addressing unspecified foreign leaders, Ahmadinejad said, "You took sides based on wrong information and opinions, and we advise you to come back to the path of justice and fairness and stop meddling in others' affairs."
In contrast to Ahmadinejad's first inauguration, when the former mayor of Tehran kissed Khamenei on the hand and both cheeks, the supreme leader appeared to stop Ahmadinejad from embracing him after receiving the decree, then allowed the president to kiss his left shoulder as a sign of respect. The uneasy encounter prompted speculation that Khamenei was seeking to distance himself from Ahmadinejad.
Branigin reported from Washington.