CAIRO – Riot police cracked down anew on demonstrators in Iran’s capital on Monday hours after the feared Revolutionary Guard threatened to crush any further post-election protests. A witness described an “air of sadness” marked by people wailing prayers into the night.
Security forces used tear gas and fired live bullets in the air to break up a group of about 200 protesters paying tribute to a young woman whose apparent shooting death was captured on video and circulated around the world, witnesses said.
The show of force came as the country’s highest electoral authority, the Guardian Council, acknowledged some irregularities in 50 districts – including more votes being cast than registered voters. But the council insisted the result of the June 12 presidential election was not affected.
The Guards’ threat of “revolutionary confrontation” if the protests persist was another signal the regime is taking a zero-tolerance approach to Iran’s worst civil unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered opposition supporters on Friday to halt their marches and respect the election outcome, saying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a resounding victory.
Iran says at least 17 protesters have died in a week of unrest, including at least 10 killed in confrontations the day after Khamenei’s speech.
Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has alleged widespread and systematic fraud, issued his own challenge Sunday, telling supporters: “The country belongs to you … Protesting against lies and fraud is your right.”
Severe restrictions on reporters have made it almost impossible to independently verify reports on demonstrations, clashes and casualties. Iran has ordered reporters for international news agencies to stay in their offices, barring them from reporting on the streets.
In a statement on its Web site Monday, the Revolutionary Guard ordered demonstrators to “end the sabotage and rioting,” calling the protests a “conspiracy” against Iran. It told demonstrators to “be prepared for … revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces” if rallies continue. The Basij, a plainclothes militia under the Guard’s command, has been blamed for some of the protesters’ deaths.
Despite the warnings, some 200 people heeded a call on Persian-language blogs and Twitter feeds to rally Monday at Tehran’s Haft-e-tir Square in memory of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman shown on video as she apparently bled to death, and other “martyrs.”
Witnesses told The Associated Press that helicopters hovered overhead as riot police fired live rounds and lobbed tear gas to break up the gathering.
Security forces ordered people to keep walking and prevented even small groups from gathering – at one point taking the extraordinary step of separating couples who emerged from a subway station, the witnesses said. They asked not to be identified for fear of government reprisals.
An Iranian woman who lives in Tehran said there was a heavy police and security presence.
“There is a massive, massive, massive police presence,” she told the AP in Cairo by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was worried about government reprisals. “Their presence was really intimidating.”
“What you see is nothing (compared) to what is really happening,” said the woman. “People are very, very despondent. There is an air of sadness around.”
At night, she added, cries of “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!” echo through Tehran, saying that was “the only way that they are able to express themselves.”
The government has intensified a crackdown on independent media – expelling a BBC correspondent, suspending the Dubai-based network Al-Arabiya and detaining at least two local journalists for U.S. magazines.
Britain, accused by Iran of fomenting post-election unrest, said Monday it was evacuating the families of diplomats and other officials based in Iran – the first country to do so.
President Barack Obama defended his cautious approach with Iran’s leadership, and the White House said he was “moved” by televised images of the protests. But Republicans continued pressing him for a stronger response.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed dismay at the violence and urged “an immediate stop to the arrests, threats and use of force,” U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
“He calls on the authorities to respect fundamental civil and political rights, especially the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of information,” Montas said.
An analysis of Iran’s official election results released by the Chatham House think-tank in London revealed anomalies that it said cast doubt on Ahmadinejad’s victory.
Compared with the 2005 election, the outcome in a third of Iran’s provinces would require that Ahmadinejad received support from all former centrist voters, all new voters and almost half of all former reformist voters. Chatham House called that an unlikely scenario.
Mousavi, who wants the election results annulled and a new vote held, vowed to keep up the rallies in defiance of Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran. On his Web site Monday, he called on supporters to turn on their car lights as a sign of protest and warned of danger ahead.
Although Mousavi pledged to stand by the protesters “at all times,” he said he would “never allow anybody’s life to be endangered because of my actions” and called for pursuing fraud claims through an independent board.
Mousavi, a former prime minister, is a longtime supporter of the Islamic government and was himself labeled a hard-liner during the 1979 revolution. Reflecting his divided loyalties, he called the Basij and security forces “our brothers” and “protectors of our revolution and regime” – a possible attempt to make sure his supporters don’t go overboard and challenge the essence of Iran’s system of limited democracy constrained by Shiite clerics.
For nearly every Iranian – even those who were not yet born in 1979 – the Islamic Revolution is a watershed moment for the nation’s psyche. Its supporters see it as Iran’s break from foreign dominance and the dawn of its self-declared role as the world’s champion of Islam. Yet others, including the many who fled the country, see it ushering in an era of clerical rule that brought international isolation and stifled freedoms at home.
Mousavi represents a middle ground. He supports the Islamic system but claims the early aspirations of the revolution – for elected officials to set the tone and clerics in a more advisory capacity – have been hijacked by leaders who put their will over the people’s.
“Mousavi wants to change the system, but he doesn’t want to overthrow the system. He wants to make it more flexible and more responsive to the people,” said Ali Nader, an Iran specialist for the RAND Corp. think-tank .
He said the Guard’s crackdown threat was no surprise.
“They won’t let these protests grow – this was the way the shah was brought down” in 1979, Nader said. But, he added: “Even if the protests peter out, you can expect a strong opposition movement in Iran.”
The Guard, too, may be treading cautiously, Nader said. “If they do crack down too harshly, they risk their legitimacy and popular support,” he said.
Associated Press Writers Sebastian Abbot and Brian Murphy in Cairo, and AP staff members in Iran contributed to this report.