Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Iran's Islamic leadership is prepared to do a limited recount of disputed presidential elections, a spokesman said Tuesday, drawing the ruling clerics deeper into a showdown that began with street clashes and quickly moved to the highest levels of power.
The offer by the Guardian Council for a targeted tally — from specific voting sites where fraud has been alleged — is the first direct action by authorities to address claims of irregularities by opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it also offers further hints that the non-elected ruling clerics are seeking to calm the protest anger and keep the dissent from spreading into their rarified world.
It was not immediately clear when such a count could begin or how many voting sites would be included.
So far the opposition anger has been focused on the election results, which reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi claims was marred by fraud and robbed him of victory. Hundreds of thousands of Mousavi's backers poured through Tehran on Monday in a massive show of unity that ended in bloodshed when seven people were killed in a confrontation with pro-regime militiamen.
Also Tuesday, Iranian authorities restricted all journalists working for foreign media from firsthand reporting on the streets. The order allows those journalists to work only from their offices, conducting telephone interviews and monitoring official sources such as state television. It blocks images and eyewitness descriptions of the protests and violence that has followed last week's disputed elections.
A widening of the protests could begin to challenge the ruling clerics and the true centers of power in Iran.
Mousavi, who served as prime minister in the 1980s, has formally laid out his allegations in a letter to the Guardian Council and in talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all critical matters and policies.
Unlike past student-led demonstrations against the Islamic establishment, Mousavi has the ability to press his case with the highest levels and could gain powerful allies. Some influential clerics have expressed concern about possible election irregularities and a fierce critic of Mousavi, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, is part of the ruling establishment.
A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was quoted on state television as saying the recount would be limited to voting sites where candidates claim irregularities took place.
There was no immediate word from Mousavi on the announcement, but he said Monday he was not hopeful that the council would address his charges because he believes they are not neutral and have already indicated support for Ahmadinejad.
The 12-member Guardian Council includes clerics and experts in Islamic law. Its role includes certifying election results, but nullifying an election would be an unprecedented step. The group is closely allied to Khamenei, who ordered an examination into the fraud allegations although he had initially welcomed Ahmadinejad's victory.
Claims of voting irregularities went to the council after Ahmadinejad's upset victory in 2005, but there was no official word on the outcome of the inquiry, and the vote stood.
The council must certify ballot results and also has the apparent authority to nullify an election. The council also serves as a constitutional watchdog and vets candidates running in elections.
Iran state radio reported Tuesday that clashes in the Iranian capital the previous day left seven people dead during an "unauthorized gathering" at a mass rally over alleged election fraud — the first official confirmation of deaths linked to the wave of protests and street battles the elections.
The report said the deaths occurred after protesters "tried to attack a military location." It gave no further details, but it was a clear reference to crowds who came under gunfire Monday after trying to storm a compound for volunteer militia linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard.
The shootings came at the end the rally by opponents of Ahmadinejad who defied an official ban to march through the city.
The deaths also raise the prospect of further defiance from crowds claiming that Mousavi was the rightful election winner. The protest movement has shown no signs of easing with Mousavi's backers reportedly planning to gather in a Tehran square later Tuesday where pro-Ahmadinejad crowd also have called a rally to demand punishment of "rioters."
In a message posted on his Web site, Mousavi said he will not attend the rally and asked his supporters "not fall in the trap of street riots" and exercise self-restraint."
The deaths Monday occurred on the edge of Tehran's Azadi Square. An Associated Press photographer saw gunmen, standing on a roof, opening fire on a group of demonstrators who tried to storm the militia compound.
Angry men showed their bloody palms after cradling the dead and wounded who had been part of a crowd that stretched more than five miles.
The march also marked Mousavi's first public appearance since shortly after the election and said he was willing to "pay any price" in his demands to overturn the election results.
Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, arrived in Russia on Tuesday to attend a summit.
A Web site run by Iran's former reformist vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, said he had been arrested by security officers, but provided no further details. Abtahi's Web site, popular among the youth, has reported extensively on the alleged vote fraud.
The huge rally Monday — and smaller protests around the country — display the resolve of Mousavi's backers and have pushed Iran's Islamic establishment into attempts to cool the tensions after days of unrest.
The death toll reported Tuesday was the first in Tehran since the postelection turmoil gripped Iran and could be a further rallying point in a culture that venerates martyrs and often marks their death with memorials. One of Mousavi's Web sites said a student protester was killed early Monday in clashes in Shiraz in southern Iran but there was no independent confirmation of the report.