Police beat protesters in Iran after Ahmadinejad declared winner

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2009 

TEHRAN, Iran — Violent clashes erupted between students and security forces in Iran's capital Saturday after the Iranian government declared hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the overwhelming winner of the country's presidential election.

Baton-wielding government special forces on foot and motorcycle beat back rock-throwing crowds of mostly youthful supporters of Ahmadinejad's primary challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, throughout the city.

There were injuries, but no confirmed reports of deaths. It was the worst political violence here in a decade.

Mousavi challenged the official result, which showed Ahmadinejad with more than 62 percent of the vote, or about 24 million ballots, compared to about 34 percent for Mousavi, and his supporters cried fraud.

But a personal appeal to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, to intervene seemed likely to go nowhere, and the result was all but certain to stand.

Political analysts worried that the outcome would complicate President Barack Obama's hopes of engaging Iran on its suspected nuclear weapons program and other issues.

Analysts also warned that the re-election of Ahmedinejad, who has questioned the Holocaust and threatened Israel, would make it more difficult for Obama to persuade Israel to compromise on a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel sees Iran as its No. 1 adversary.

"I fear Ahmadinejad is an insurmountable obstacle to confidence building with Iran," said Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

State-run media made no mention of the clashes in Tehran, instead extolling the high voter turnout, which officials said reached about 85 percent.

The violence marked a startling conclusion to what had been a tumultuous election campaign that culminated in Friday's vote. Many believed that Mousavi would be the beneficiary of the huge turnout — authorities extended polling hours from 6 p.m. to midnight to accommodate the crowds.

But even before the polls had closed, state media declared Ahmadinejad victorious with a nearly two-thirds majority, based on early results. Those reports roughly coincided with a flooding of the streets with security forces in an apparent government reassertion of control after 10 days of loud, fervent rallies by Mousavi's green-clad youth brigades.

The clampdown tightened Saturday. Cell phone service was cut off, access to the social network site Facebook was blocked, and authorities warned against unauthorized protests. Text messaging, a prime means of communication for young people here, was disabled for the second day in a row.

Police showed little hesitance to confront mobs of protesters.

On central Vali Asr Street, columns of armored special forces units charged groups of students, striking civilians with their batons, as protesters rained rocks down on police from windows above.

Other clashes took place near the Interior Ministry, which oversaw the elections, and in Vanak Square, in north-central Tehran. Protesters set fires in some places, and smoke could be seen billowing above some areas of the capital.

At one point, a squad of special forces police on motorcycles roared down the alley past Mousavi's campaign headquarters in a show of force.

"Democracy is dead in Iran, by these elections. ... It is some kind of catastrophe, by this large fraud," said journalist Tahere Eibodi, as she stood outside the headquarters.

Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, however, saw the violence as the work of Iran's enemies.

"The election is a threat to our enemies. Even now, they work to provoke or excite our people," he told a news conference.

For his part, supreme leader Khamenei seemed to endorse the outcome.

"The participation of over 80 percent of Iranians at the polls .... is a cause for true celebration and God willing this will ensure the continuation of the country's progress and the maintenance of national security," he said in a statement, according to Iran's Press TV.

"The spirit of calm presented by the nation, in the face of enemy propaganda and the nation's mass participation was such that makes it indescribable in words," Khamanei said.

"In retrospect it appears the entire campaign was a show; Ayatollah Khamanei wasn't ever going to let Ahmadinejad lose," said Sadjadpour, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There was no independent way to verify the vote totals announced by the Iranian government, which gave Ahmadinejad more than 62 percent of the vote, compared with about 34 percent for Mousavi. Iran did not allow international observers in to monitor the election.

But Ahmadinejad's vote total of 24 million far exceeded what specialists said before Friday's vote was his base vote of no more than 15 million.

They also easily exceeded his vote totals in the last presidential election in 2005, which he won with 17.2 million votes.

In the years since, Ahmadinejad, a former Tehran mayor, has proved a deeply polarizing figure, popular with many Iranians but detested by many others.

That fact gave Mousavi supporters hope Friday as polling stations across Iran's capital became crowded, with many voters waiting as long as 90 minutes to vote.

But on Saturday morning, Mousavi supporters described the election as a charade. Many appeared shocked and numb.

"They want your vote to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran is legitimate," said one purple-shirted youth near Mousavi headquarters. He was dragged away by a friend before he could be asked his name.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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