Iran opposition defies ayatollah, schedules protests on Saturday

McClatchy NewspapersJune 19, 2009 

Iran's opposition Friday called for a major new protest over the disputed presidential election, defying a demand by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and setting the stage for a potentially violent showdown in the streets with security forces and militias.

Defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi circumvented regime efforts to block Internet access by announcing the rallies on his Facebook page in Farsi and in English Friday. "CRUCIAL Demonstration on Saturday 16:00 in Tehran and all around the world, please spread this message around," it said.

Messages urging the public to converge Saturday for the march through the capital also flooded Twitter, and after dark on Friday, Tehranis took to the rooftops to cry "God is great" and "Death to the dictator" in what Iranian bloggers said were numbers exceeding previous nights.

The sermon by the unelected Khamenei, who wields nearly absolutely power under Iran's constitution, ended any doubt about his alignment with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And it made clear he wasn't open to finding a compromise on Mousavi's demand to annul the election, which he claimed was married by massive rigging.

"I have one vote. I have given it to Mousavi. I have one life. I will give it for freedom," one Twitter post said.

Khamenei, 69, appeared to have miscalculated if he thought he could cow the opposition with his tough speech, said Mohammad Sahimi, an Iranian-American professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California and political analyst.

"I think he has polarized the society far more than it was because he made clear what his preference is and where he stands and who he supports," Sahimi said. The opposition is "openly defying this guy. In the short run, it may it lead to violence."

Khamenei demanded an end to the protests in an uncompromising Friday sermon. In it, he endorsed hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's June 12 landslide re-election, dismissed charges that the result was fixed and signaled that a major crackdown would be launched if his order for the protests to stop wasn't obeyed.

"Political party leaders should be very careful about what they say and do," Khamenei told tens of thousands at Tehran University, a center of the anti-government movement, as Ahmadinejad and other senior official looked on. "They will be responsible for any bloodshed and any form of unrest."

"I will not allow any illegal initiative. If the laws are broken today, no election will be immune in the future," Khamenei said, according to an English translation aired by Press TV, the English-language version of state-run television.

In an apparent bid to discredit the swelling opposition movement Khamenei accused the United States, European powers and Israel of fomenting the worst political turmoil to convulse this nation of 67 million since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the late shah, Reza Pahlavi.

U.S. and European "agents started to cause riots in the street. They caused destruction, burned houses; theft and insecurity prevailed," Khamenei said. "These are the servants of the Westerners, Zionist agents and their servants."

Khamenei called Britain "the most evil" Western nation, prompting the British Foreign Office in London to call in the Iranian ambassador to Britain for a formal protest.

In Washington, Democrats joined Republicans in the House and Senate in overwhelmingly approving a resolution condemning "ongoing violence" against opposition protesters by security forces and the Basij, a hard-line volunteer militia that demonstrators have accused of brutal attacks.

The resolution also criticized the regime for the "suppression of independent electronic communications through interference with the Internet and cell phones."

The move contrasted with President Barack Obama's restrained response to the crisis, an apparent attempt to avoid jeopardizing — irrespective of the outcome — his offer of unconditional negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program and other disputed issues.

While welcoming the resolution, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "As the president has said, we're not going to be used as political foils and political footballs in a debate that's happening by Iranians in Iran."

Press TV, whose reports were available online, quoted the top administrator of Tehran province as saying that no permission had been given for Saturday's protest march.

The march — dubbed "From Revolution to Freedom" — was called by Mousavi, Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guard commander who officially placed third in the election, and the Association of Combatant Clerics, moderate religious scholars loyal to former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mousavi had called over his Web sites for protests on Friday, but postponed them until Saturday to avoid violence after state-run media announced that a huge crowd, much of it believed to comprise Basij militia members, would hear Khamenei's sermon.

Significantly, however, he didn't cancel Saturday's demonstration after the speech.

Moreover, the fourth-placed candidate and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi on Friday joined the demands by Mousavi and Rezaei for a new election.

"The absolute majority of Iranians" have objected to the results and anything other than the nullification of the vote would be "a grave mistake," Press TV quoted Karroubi as saying in a letter posted on his Web site to the 12-member Guardians Council, a body of senior clerics that has agreed to conduct a limited review of the returns.

Charges that Ahmadinejad's victory was rigged ignited protests beginning in early hours of June 13 by hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of Iranians in Tehran and other cities that have been punctuated by violent clashes pitting demonstrators against security forces and the Basij.

In his sermon, Khamenei said it was impossible that the 11 million-vote margin between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi was the result of rigging.

"If there was less than that, we would say there are doubts, but how can 11 million votes be replaced or changed?" he said. "Don't allow enemies to destroy and ruin the celebration of our elections."

He sought to justify a crackdown on foreign news coverage of the crisis, saying that foreign powers were working through "the Zionist, American and British radios" to overthrow the cleric-dominated political system that was installed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Foreign reporters who received visas to cover the election were ordered to leave the country and those based in Tehran have been prohibited from leaving their offices to cover the demonstrations.

However, the regime's Internet censors have been unable to prevent Iranians from posting reports, pictures and videos of the crisis to Twitter, Facebook and other online outlets.

In Geneva, the United Nations' top human rights advocate expressed concern over the deaths of at least eight people in protests on Monday and the reported arrests of hundreds of politicians, journalists, activists, intellectuals and others.

"What are the grounds for the arrests? Have proper warrants been issued in accordance with Iranian law? Why have some of those who have been arrested been denied access to lawyers and members of their families? And why is the whereabouts of others unknown," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai said in a statement.

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Mousavi's Facebook page

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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