Monday, June 15, 2009

Tehran Rally Has Thousands Protesting Ahmadinejad Win

Hundreds of thousands of protesters defied an Iranian government ban on a rally in Tehran to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, as the supreme leader said allegations of vote-rigging should be investigated.

Former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main challenger in the June 12 ballot, attended the gathering to urge the crowd to stay “calm.” The demonstration was prohibited by the Interior Ministry. Video distributed by the Associated Press showed crowds crammed into Azadi Street, a main route linking the University of Tehran and Azadi Square. A policeman told Agence France-Presse 1.5 million to 2 million people attended.

Mousavi, 67, said there were “obvious violations” and called for the election result to be scrapped after the official tally gave Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, almost 63 percent of the vote. The former prime minister took about 34 percent. Mousavi told the crowd he is ready to take part in any election rerun, AFP reported.

Ahmadinejad, 52, who has insisted the vote was fair, delayed a planned trip to Russia today. Mousavi met yesterday with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told him to pursue his complaint through legal channels, after the former premier asked the election’s supervisory body, the Guardian Council, to set aside the outcome.

Khamenei told Mousavi that he had asked the Guardian Council to carefully consider his allegations, state television reported.

The decision to examine the fairness of the election shows that the Iranian leadership feels that it is under pressure, said Professor Anoush Ehteshami, a lecturer at the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University in northeastern England.

‘Unchartered Territory’

While Khamenei and other leaders remain determined to uphold Ahmadinejad’s victory and the investigation is little more than a “gesture,” the protests may gather pace, he said.

“Everything is going into unchartered territory,” Ehteshami said today in a telephone interview. “That makes it volatile.” A violent crackdown would be “a very dangerous step to take” for the authorities because such an action may incite huge unrest, he added.

The numbers of demonstrators would need to reach at least the tens of thousands and spread to a number of cities to really pose a threat, said Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran who is now an analyst at Chatham House, a London-based research group.

“One thing can lead to another, but given the means at their disposal, the security forces are able to disperse the demonstrations,” Dalton said today in a telephone interview.

Police fired tear gas at protesters in Tehran yesterday, in the second day of clashes since authorities declared Ahmadinejad the winner. More than 100 people in Tehran were arrested, including political leaders.

‘Rallies Illegal’

“The Interior Ministry has granted no permit to the headquarters of Mousavi for staging rallies of his supporters in different cities of the country on Monday,” the state-run Fars news agency cited Governor General of Tehran Morteza Tamaddon as saying. “The rallies are and remain illegal. The police will stop any unauthorized rallies or gatherings.”

Security was tight around the University of Tehran, where the rally was held. Mousavi was due to be joined at the event by another defeated candidate, former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, 71, Mousavi’s campaign said.

Former President Mohammad Khatami said on his Web site that he would join Mousavi and Karrubi at the gathering. Khatami wants the election re-run, AFP said, citing his brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami.

‘Retrieve Our Votes’

Protesters shouted “Mousavi we support you! We will die but retrieve our votes!” AFP reported, as riot police stood guard. Supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mousavi clashed in the city, Sky News reported, citing Reuters.

Sky broadcast pictures of thousands of people taking part in the demonstration.

Iran “is not afraid of threats,” Ahmadinejad told a news conference in Tehran yesterday, rejecting international concern about the allegations of voting irregularities. “It will stand up to those who want to prevent its progress.”

Ahmadinejad delayed talks with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, Sahera Rahmani, a spokeswoman for the Iranian Embassy in Moscow, said by telephone. Rahmani declined to say when Ahmadinejad would travel to Russia.

Ahmadinejad, accused by rival candidates of unnecessarily stoking tensions with the West, may see success at the ballot box as a vindication of his policies. That could be a setback for President Barack Obama’s policy of engaging Iran in dialogue, rather than ostracizing it, as a means to ensure the Islamic republic doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons.

Arms Race

The U.S. has fundamental interests in the region, including preventing a Middle East arms race, which requires pressing Iran to abandon any pursuit of atomic weapons, said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday “there is some real doubt” about the election results. Still, he said the Obama administration will proceed with the plan to engage with Iran. “The decision has been made to talk,” irrespective of the election’s outcome, Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

“I’m not sure if the results reflect the real will of the Iranian people,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told journalists today at the Paris Air Show, AFP reported. Iran’s hardliners will nevertheless “control the country. And that’s bad news because they will continue the effort toward a nuclear, military Iran,” Barak said.

A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party said the United Nations should condemn the election. The vote was “rigged in an obvious way,” Frederic Lefebvre, a spokesman for the UMP, told reporters today in Paris.

‘Hear Our Concerns’

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner summoned the Iranian ambassador “to provide explanations about the events and to hear our concerns,” ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said in an e-mailed response to questions. “France along with its EU partners awaits clear responses to the doubts raised about the regularity of the vote,” said Chevallier, adding that France condemns the police crackdown on protesters.

“The very serious doubts that are being raised about the free and fair nature of the election counting process are obviously of very major concern to many people in Iran,” U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters before a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg today.

The EU ministers called on Iran to probe charges that Ahmadinejad’s re-election was rigged, and to allow peaceful protests.

‘Charges of Manipulation’

The EU intends to engage with Iran’s government “on the basis of mutual respect but it requires Iran to recognize and act urgently on its responsibilities and obligations,” the foreign ministers said in a statement.

Iran needs to “clarify quickly and comprehensively, through the responsible authorities, the charges that were raised, the criticism of the course of the election and the vote count, the charges of manipulation,” Thomas Steg, spokesman for Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, said at a regular government press conference in Berlin.

Mousavi urged supporters yesterday to continue “civil and legal opposition throughout the country peacefully.”

Mousavi, who called during the campaign for a more conciliatory approach to the West and acknowledged the shift in U.S. policy under Obama, claimed victory after polls closed on June 12, shortly before state-run media said Ahmadinejad had won.

Police, Protesters Clash

During the weekend demonstrations in Tehran, protesters set fire to buses, and motorbikes belonging to police, who used tear gas and batons to disperse a crowd of several thousand chanting “fraud” and “Mousavi, Mousavi, get my vote back.”

Mobile telephones were functioning sporadically yesterday. The Internet was either down or working slowly in Tehran. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were no longer operational in the country and Mousavi-supporting Web sites didn’t respond. It wasn’t clear whether government agencies were involved in blocking the services.

Ahmadinejad’s victory limits the prospect of European investment in Iranian oil and gas projects, the Centre for Global Energy Studies said.

The election outcome damages the hope of a moderation in Iran’s relations with Europe and the U.S., according to Julian Lee, senior energy analyst at the center in London. Oil companies have pulled back from investment in the world’s fourth-largest crude producer as its nuclear research program brought economic sanctions.

“Things are very unlikely to change” after Ahmadinejad’s re-election, Lee said in a phone interview today. “Any hopes that this might suddenly become unlocked by a new government in Tehran have been quashed.”