TEHRAN, Iran — Violence flared across Iran on Monday with the first reported death from anti-government riots, as hundreds of thousands of defiant Tehranis took to the streets demanding "Where is my vote?" after Friday's disputed presidential election.
The unrest, possibly Iran's worst political crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution, confounded predictions that the regime would be able to contain the fallout from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's unexpected claim of a landslide victory.
President Barack Obama spoke cautiously in his first comments about the election, in an apparent attempt to preserve his initiative for direct diplomacy with Iran on a range of issues, including its nuclear program.
He said he was "deeply troubled" by the violence against the protesters, but that it was "up to Iran to determine its own leaders," and as "odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements," he was determined to continue pursuing "tough, direct dialogue."
European leaders were tougher. German Chancellor Angela Merkel decried what she called "signs of irregularities," and French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned "violence against demonstrators, arrests of opponents and of politicians, restrictions of public freedoms, freedom of speech and of communication, and obstacles to the work of foreign and Iranian journalists."
Unknown gunmen killed one person and wounded others in Azadi, or Freedom, Square, the Associated Press reported, citing a photographer who witnessed the shooting. Photos posted on the Internet showed that at least four people had been shot, and there were reports that clashes were spreading across Tehran and raging in other cities, including Isfahan.
Dramatic video aired by Britain's Channel 4 television showed a crowd throwing rocks and setting fire to a building that belonged to the pro-government Basij militia. A helmeted militiaman on the roof fired his AK-47 rifle into the air before retreating from a shower of stones.
Iranians who were feeding the Twitter online social-networking service reported clashes between Mousavi supporters and security forces and the Basij militia in Shiraz, Mashad, Babool and Tabriz.
As flames licked from the building's windows, the militiaman returned to the front of the roof and fired multiple shots into the screaming crowd. The video showed at least one young man, reportedly dead, being carried from the scene.
The bulk of the protests — held despite warnings by the Interior Ministry — were peaceful, with anti-Ahmadinejad crowds honking car horns, flashing victory signs and shouting "Allahu Akbar!" — "God is great" — from rooftops well after dark.
In a bid to defuse the growing pressure from backers of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced that the powerful Guardian Council will investigate Mousavi's complaints of vote-rigging.
However, Khamenei's assurances seemed unlikely to produce a reversal of the election's reported lopsided outcome in favor of the hard-line Ahmadinejad. Mousavi said he was "not very optimistic" about the council's judgment. "Many of its members during the election were not impartial and supported the government candidate," he said on his Web site.
The size and persistence of the protests appear to have caught the regime off-guard, and it's vacillated between using force to put them down and trying to appease the mostly young protesters.
Special anti-riot forces and motorcycle-riding Basiji militiamen have beaten and chased Mousavi supporters through the streets. At times, however, the protesters have fought back.
Earlier on Monday, the Interior Ministry warned that the mass rally was illegal and would be dealt with severely.
Thousands of Tehranis streamed down wide boulevards on foot and motorbike into Enghelab (Revolution) Square anyway, however, as riot police in helmets and shields stood immobile on the square's rim. Fashionably dressed women wore sandwich board-like signs that read, "Where is my vote?"
Mousavi, in his first public appearance since Friday's vote, addressed the crowd from the edge of the square.
It was later in the evening that the deaths were reported.
Iran hasn't seen such violence since student riots a decade ago during the tenure of former President Mohammed Khatami.
The crisis appears to have sent Iran, an oil-rich nation of 70 million people with nuclear ambitions, into uncharted waters, said Suzanne Maloney, a specialist at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"This . . . to my mind represents the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic's stability since 1979," Maloney said. While there have been many past "moments of turbulence," she said, the outrage over an election thought to have been stolen goes beyond students or any other single group.
Additionally, she said, "this time around there is a political leader who at least so far has been unwilling to back down even at the explicit instruction of the supreme leader. Mousavi's mild-mannered defiance is perhaps the most important factor in potentially moving this situation to a dramatic break from the past."
The students and others are demanding that Mousavi be given the presidency — which they say is rightfully his — but they've stopped short of calling for overthrowing the theocratic regime. The presidency is at best the No. 2 position in Iran, under Supreme Leader Khamenei.
The crisis appears to be playing out on two levels, one on the streets and the other in intense consultations among members of Iran's political elite.
Mousavi, who met Sunday with Khamenei, had demanded a review by the Guardian Council, whose 12 members vet election candidates and certify the results. Mousavi also has reached out for support to clerics in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom. Not all the clerics support the conservative Ahmadinejad.
Khamenei urged Mousavi to pursue his complaints "legally and calmly," but it's unclear whether the crowds will do as he asks. Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rhanavard, told a crowd at Tehran University on Sunday night that the Monday rally had been canceled, and Mousavi himself tried to get that message out Monday morning.
"Mr. Mousavi does not want any violence," Saeed Laylaz, a top adviser involved in campaign strategy sessions, told McClatchy by telephone.
The Interior Ministry said that Ahmadinejad had received 24.6 million votes, compared with 13.3 million for Mousavi and fewer than a million each for the two other candidates.
The province-by-province breakdown of votes was highly suspect, however, Ahmadinejad opponents said. For example, it showed the hard-line incumbent winning East Azerbaijan province, home to Mousavi and millions of his fellow ethnic Azeris.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national-security news at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks
McClatchy Newspapers 2009