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Story Publication logo June 14, 2009

Street Fights, Record Turnout Mark Iranian Election


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After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


An election that began with a record number of Iranians peacefully seeking to choose their president ended Saturday in protest demonstrations and a violent crackdown that undermined the legitimacy of the Islamic regime.

Iranian officials - including the Muslim cleric who wields the ultimate power in the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - insisted that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected by a margin of more than 10 million votes over his main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, an Ahmadinejad ally, declared that the president had been re-elected to a second four-year term with 62.6 percent of the vote, against 33.7 percent for Mr. Mousavi, in a record 85 percent turnout.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, during a press conference on Sunday, said his re-election was "real and free" and cannot be questioned, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Mousavi refused to concede, instead charging the regime with massive fraud while his supporters flooded the streets of Tehran.

Trita Parsi, president of the Iranian American Council, a U.S.-based group that has supported better U.S. relations with Iran, said Mr. Mousavi had been put under house arrest and senior members of the reformist movement, including Reza Khatami, the brother of former president Mohammed Khatami, had also been detained by security forces.

Mr. Parsi said Iranian security forces had in effect staged a coup to deny Iranians a new president and that the only hope lay with the 86-member Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that has the power to remove the supreme leader.

"This is a coup," Mr. Parsi said. He said the security forces behind Mr. Ahmadinejad were essentially saying, "'Yes, we cheated and what are you going to do about it?' "

He said the next 24 hours would be crucial to see if other senior members of the revolutionary elite, such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who leads the Assembly of Experts, could muster enough support to reverse the decision declaring Mr. Ahmadinejad the winner.

The Obama administration, which had welcomed a vigorous campaign and what appeared to be a record turnout, said it was following the situation with concern and monitoring reports of fraud. The White House has not accepted Ahmadinejad's claim of victory, the Associated Press noted.

"We are monitoring the situation as it unfolds in Iran, but we, like the rest of the world, are waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters during a visit to Canada. "We obviously hope that the outcome reflects the genuine will and desire of the Iranian people."

There were unconfirmed reports of some fatalities as Iranian security forces shot at demonstrators in Tehran. Protesters yelled, "Give us back our vote," and "Death to the dictator" as they set fires in trash cans and threw stones at soldiers, riot police and members of the Basij paramilitary force.

Haedi Ghaemi, spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a U.S.-based group, urged the U.S. and other governments not to recognize the elections results. He said Mr. Mousavi had been told he was the victor Friday night by Iran's Interior Ministry, which is in charge of vote-counting, but asked him to wait to celebrate until Sunday.

"A few hours later, the ministry inexplicably reversed itself, declaring a massive victory for Ahmadinejad," Mr. Ghaemi wrote in an e-mail to a list-serve, Gulf 2000, that focuses on Iran.

Mr. Ghaemi said the international community should demand that Iran hold new elections.

"Iran has been thrown into an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy," he said. "The stage has been set for a Tehran Tiananmen, in which massive violence will be unleashed in an attempt to intimidate the citizens from pursuing their dream of democracy." He was referring to the 1989 repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.

Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian elections have been limited to candidates approved by a clerical Council of Guardians, but in recent years there has been a modicum of choice. In 1997, Mr. Khatami won in a landslide against a candidate favored by Ayatollah Khamenei. Mr. Khatami won again in 2001.

In the next presidential elections, in 2005, there were reports of ballot rigging that favored Mr. Ahmadinejad, but nothing on the scale of what is said to have occurred on Friday.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose supporters are largely concentrated in rural areas, was said to have won more than half the votes in Tehran, Iran's most populous city, and in Tabriz, an ethnic-Azeri city. Mr. Mousavi is Azeri and drew huge crowds when he campaigned in Tabriz.

Observers also noted that the Iranian regime declared Mr. Ahmadinejad the winner before the polls had even closed and that his alleged margin of victory never changed during the vote counting, a statistically unlikely if not impossible occurrence.

Mr. Mousavi said on his Web site that his staff had been beaten by security forces with clubs and electrical cables. "I'm warning that I won't surrender to this manipulation," he said, according to the Associated Press. "The outcome of what we've seen from the performance of officials is nothing but shaking the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran's sacred system and governance of lies and dictatorship."

In Tehran, meanwhile, clashes continued through the night.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Tehran's Vali Asr Square. Groups of helmeted soldiers, riot police and Basij members stood guard at central intersections. Traffic lights glinted off their shields, batons and machine guns.

At least four ambulances were seen speeding the wrong way up Islamic Republic Avenue, a one-way avenue bisecting Tehran from east to west. They were followed by several police cars, vans and open-decked trucks holding rows of riot police in body armor, as sirens wailed.

Earlier in the evening, columns of cars honking horns and waving green pro-Mousavi banners gridlocked Vali Asr Avenue as young men with bandannas over their faces threw stones at riot police; set fire to cars, buses and trash cans; and threw stones at police motorcyclists. Motorists craned their necks out of their windows or stepped out of their cars to watch smoke curling up from fires set by demonstrators.

Stretches of Vali Asr were blocked off by riot police. Plainclothes agents stood by the side of the road jotting down the numbers of cars engaged in pro-Mousavi activities.

"Let an earthquake come and destroy everything," said a motorist fatalistically as he watched protesters run away from the police.

At the Shahid Rajai hospital on the corner of Vali Asr and Niyaesh avenues, bystanders spoke of compound guards beating people back with sticks as riot police rushed demonstrators and ordinary citizens. Drivers struggled to escape the crossfire as motorists choked on tear gas and stones ricocheted off cars. Demonstrators trashed cars, buses and banks as they retreated from the police.

Iranian officials justified their actions, saying that they were preventing demonstrators from engaging in illegal activities that endanger public safety.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, in a "victory" speech, blamed the foreign press for the civil unrest, the worst in Tehran for at least a decade.

As sunset fell, service was discontinued on all cell phones across Tehran, and access to Facebook -- the official site of the Mousavi campaign and several reformist news sources -- was blocked. Internet was still available, and land-line telephones worked normally.

The government announced that universities were to be closed down and end-of-year exams postponed in what appeared to be a bid to stop young people from assembling in large numbers.

Barbara Slavin in Washington contributed to this report.


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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