CAIRO – Overwhelmed by police and left with limited alternatives, Iranian demonstrators resorted Tuesday to more subtle ways of challenging the outcome of the presidential election: holding up posters, shouting from rooftops and turning on car headlights.
But the restrained expressions of discontent appeared to be scattered as Iran’s ruling clerics dealt the opposition new setbacks, making clear they have no intention of holding a new vote and setting up a special court to deal with hundreds of protesters arrested in more than a week of unrest.
Iran also expelled two diplomats from Britain – a nation it bitterly accuses of meddling and spying – and Britain in turn sent two Iranian envoys home.
The latest moves, and a fresh deployment of riot police and militia to break up any street gatherings, signalled the regime’s determination to squelch dissent and mute the voices of those whose protests have been the largest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“People are calmly protesting, more symbolically than with their voices,” a Tehran resident said in a telephone interview, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution.
No rallies were reported Tuesday. Many in Tehran seemed hesitant to confront the feared Revolutionary Guard and members of the Basij militia, suggesting the harsh response wrought by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to large and boisterous demonstrations may have weakened the opposition’s resolve.
In Tehran’s sprawling Grand Bazaar market, shopkeepers said customers frightened away by the violent crackdown were venturing back outdoors.
“These past few days the situation was not good,” said a vendor who gave his name only as Ali because he feared retaliation. “People were scared because there was not any security and people didn’t come out. But thank God, in the past two or three days the situation has gotten much better and business is good.”
Severe restrictions on reporters have made it almost impossible to independently verify reports on demonstrations, clashes and casualties. Iran has ordered journalists for international news agencies to stay in their offices, barring them from reporting on the streets.
President Barack Obama said the world was “appalled and outraged” at Tehran’s use of violence, and other nations expressed grave concerns as the standoff fueled an increasingly acrimonious international dispute on how to engage Iran – a country the U.S. and its allies have accused of covertly trying to build a nuclear weapon.
“I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering in Iran’s affairs,” Obama said. “But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it expelled the two Britons for “unconventional behaviour,” state television reported without elaborating. Tensions between Iran and Britain, which has urged the Islamic regime to respect human rights, have soared in recent days.
During Friday prayers at Tehran University, Khamenei lashed out against Western countries he said were displaying their “enmity” against the Islamic state, “and the most evil of them is the British government.” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has accused Britain of sending spies to manipulate the June 12 election.
Iran’s expulsions came a day after Britain sent home a dozen dependents of diplomatic staff because of the unrest.
“I am disappointed that Iran has placed us in this position but we will continue to seek good relations with Iran and to call for the regime to respect the human rights and democratic freedoms of the Iranian people,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
About 100 hard-line students protested outside the British Embassy in Tehran, where they burned U.S., British and Israeli flags, pelted the building with tomatoes, and chanted: “Down with Britain!” and “Down with USA!” state TV reported.
Iran also accused U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of interfering in its domestic affairs.
Ban told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the “Iranian government must stop the arrest of these people and protect the civilians, and also protect the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of information.”
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi says he was the true winner of the election. Iran’s electoral commission declared Ahmadinejad the winner by a landslide, ignoring Mousavi’s claims of widespread and systematic vote fraud. Mousavi has been out of sight in recent days, but a short message posted on his Web site asserted that “all the reports of violations in the elections will be published soon.”
State TV reported that Ahmadinejad would be sworn in sometime between July 26 and Aug. 19.
Another opposition figure, reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi, called for a day of mourning for at least 17 people killed in protests since the election. Some social networking sites suggested that the mourning would take place Thursday.
Amid the crackdown, there was one small concession Tuesday from Khamenei, whose word is law in the Islamic Republic. State TV said he agreed to extend by five days a deadline for registering complaints about the election.
Yet the regime made it clear that it stood by the results and there would be no rerun of the disputed vote.
State-run Press TV quoted Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for Iran’s top electoral body, the Guardian Council, as saying it found “no major fraud or breach in the election.”
“Therefore, there is no possibility of an annulment taking place,” he was quoted as saying.
On Monday, the council had acknowledged in a rare step that it found voting irregularities in 50 of 170 districts, including ballot counts that exceeded the number of eligible voters. Still, it said the discrepancies, involving some 3 million votes, were not widespread enough to affect the outcome.
Iran has 46.2 million eligible voters, one-third of them under 30. The final tally gave 62.6 per cent of the vote to Ahmadinejad and 33.75 per cent to Mousavi, a landslide victory in a race that was perceived to be much closer. The huge margin went against the expectation that the record 85 per cent turnout would help Mousavi.
In a boost for the regime, Russia said Tuesday it respects the outcome. Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has longtime political and economic ties with Iran, where it is helping build a nuclear power plan at Bushehr. In his only trip abroad since the vote, Ahmadinejad went to Russia last week for a conference, where he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Meanwhile, Ebrahim Raisi, a top judicial official, said a special court has been set up to deal with detained protesters.
“Elements of riots must be dealt with to set an example. The judiciary will do that,” he was quoted as saying by state-run radio. The judiciary is controlled by Iran’s ruling clerics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting Rome, praised the courage of Iranian protesters “in facing bullets in the streets.”
Two prominent Iranian opposition figures took their case to Europe on Tuesday.
Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi asked European Union officials in Brussels not to negotiate or hold meetings with Iranian leaders until the crackdown stops. Ban said he also spoke Ebadi by telephone Tuesday.
In Rome, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf said he had been asked by Mousavi aides to spread the word on what is happening in Iran. Makhmalbaf said that even if Ahmadinejad manages to govern for the next four years, “he will not have one day of quietness,” with protesters resorting to general strikes and civil resistance.
A number of journalists have been detained since the protests began, although there have been conflicting accounts. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders put the figure of reporters detained at 34.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said 13 were in custody, including Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari. State-run TV confirmed the arrest of Iason Athanasiadis, a Greek national reporting for the Washington Times.