TEHRAN, Iran – Thousands of pro-reform protesters marched Tuesday in a second straight day of large street demonstrations in the Iranian capital, defying both their leader and the government after the clerical regime said it would recount some disputed ballots from the presidential election.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to unite behind the cleric-led ruling system despite the rival demonstrations and street clashes, state television reported, and he said representatives of all four candidates should be present for any limited recount of disputed ballots.
“In the elections, voters had different tendencies, but they equally believe in the ruling system and support the Islamic Republic,” said Khamenei, who is Iran’s ultimate authority.
The supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi marched about the same time – but in a different location – as a state-organized rally that also drew thousands of people waving flags and pictures of Iran’s supreme leader in an apparent attempt to reclaim the streets for the government.
Following a demonstration of hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters on Monday, the regime issued tough restrictions on journalists, barring foreign media from covering rallies in Tehran.
Witnesses and amateur video showed a large column of Mousavi supporters walking peacefully along a central avenue in north Tehran.
A witness told The Associated Press that the pro-Mousavi rally stretched more than a mile (1.5 kilometres) along Vali Asr avenue, from Vanak Square to the headquarters of Iranian state television.
Security forces did not interfere, the witness said, and the protest lasted from about 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Other witnesses told the AP that about 100 people were still protesting in front of state TV around 9:45 p.m.
A correspondent for state-controlled Press TV correspondent said the crowd carried banners of Mousavi, wore green headbands and covered their mouths in an apparent defence against tear gas.
The clerical government appears to be trying to defuse popular anger and quash unrest by announcing the limited recount even as it cracks down on foreign media and shows its strength by calling supporters to the streets.
“This nation will protect and defend its revolution in any way,” Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a prominent lawmaker and supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told the pro-government crowd in Vali Asr Square. The people pumped their fists in the air and cheered in support, images on state-run television showed.
Iranian state media said the government organized the rally to demand punishment for those who protested violently after Monday’s rally. Mousavi has said he won Friday’s balloting and has demanded the government annul Ahmadinejad’s victory and conduct a new election.
Khamenei said Monday the government would conduct an investigation into the election. The move seemed intended to calm protester anger but was followed by a rally of hundreds of thousands of people that presented one of the greatest challenges to Iran’s government since it took power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the disputed election revealed a change in expectations among voters and perhaps their leaders, but he stopped short of saying the balloting was rigged.
“I do believe that something has happened in Iran,” with Iranians more willing to question the government’s “antagonistic postures” toward the world, Obama said. “There are people who want to see greater openness, greater debate, greater democracy.”
Iran’s state radio said seven people were killed in clashes from Monday’s protest – the first official confirmation of deaths linked to the street battles following the disputed election.
Witnesses saw people firing from the roof of a building used by a state-backed militia after some Mousavi supporters set fire to the building and tried to storm it.
Mousavi supporters had called for demonstrations Tuesday but Mousavi said in a message in his Web site he would not be attending any rally and asked his supporters to “not fall in the trap of street riots” and “exercise self-restraint.”
Ahmadinejad travelled to Russia Tuesday after delaying a trip for a day but did not mention the Iranian election or unrest. Instead, he focused on the traditional target of the Islamic Republic’s ire, the United States.
“America is enveloped in economic and political crises, and there is no hope for their resolution,” he said through an interpreter. “Allies of the United States are not capable of easing these crises.”
An Iranian state radio announcement that seven people were killed in Monday’s protests was the first confirmation of deaths linked to the three days of violent demonstrations that started Saturday after the election results were announced. It said people were killed during an “unauthorized gathering” at a mass rally after protesters “tried to attack a military location.”
“Those who voted for Mr. Mousavi. Those who are creating unrest. Those who break glass, smash windows, and vandalize. Those who threaten people. It is not the right thing to defend these people,” said Adel, a former parliament speaker.
Foreign reporters in Iran to cover last week’s elections began leaving the country Tuesday after Iranian officials said they would not extend their visas.
Authorities restricted other journalists, including Iranians working for foreign media from reporting on the streets, and said they could only work from their offices, conducting telephone interviews and monitoring official sources such as state TV.
At least 10 Iranian journalists have been arrested since the election, “and we are very worried about them, we don’t know where they have been detained,” Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders told AP Television News in Paris. He added that some people who took pictures with cellphones also were arrested.
The rules prevent media outlets, including The Associated Press, from sending independent photos or video of street protests or rallies.
Khamenei ordered the Guardian Council, an unelected body composed of 12 clerics and experts in Islamic law closely allied to the supreme leader, to investigate the election results after he met with Mousavi on Sunday. Mousavi also sent a letter to the supreme leader outlining his allegations.
A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was quoted on state TV as saying the recount would be limited to voting sites where candidates claim irregularities took place. He did not rule out the possibility of cancelling the results, saying that is within the council’s powers, although nullifying an election would be an unprecedented step.
Mousavi said Monday he was not hopeful that the council would address his charges because he believes its members are not neutral and have already indicated support for Ahmadinejad.
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 Khamenei, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, is part of the ruling establishment.
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan in Washington and AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Yekaterinburg, Russia, contributed to this story.