Iranian protesters planned to flood the streets of Tehran in the tens of thousands Thursday after opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi defied a government crackdown and called for another day of demonstrations against what he has denounced as a rigged election.
Mousavi’s announcement, which he made on his Web site, represented a direct challenge to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic cleric-led government.
Civil government officials and protest leaders alike were awaiting an unusual public statement from Khamenei, who planned to deliver a sermon at Friday prayers, the most important religious address of the week — something he generally does only two or three times a year.
In rallies Wednesday, the fifth straight day of largely peaceful demonstrations, protesters dressed in black to mourn the deaths of at least seven compatriots earlier in the week. As they poured into Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square, they sported wristbands and headbands in Mousavi’s green campaign colors.
Mousavi, who maintains that he won Friday’s election, called for the rallies to continue Thursday to protest the election, which the government declared had been won by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“A number of our countrymen were wounded or martyred,” Mousavi said via a Web site. “I ask the people to express their solidarity with the families ... by coming together in mosques or taking part in peaceful demonstrations.”
Tehran protests U.S. ‘meddling’
Meanwhile, the government’s battle against the protesters grew into a war of words with the United States, which denied Tehran’s charges that it was fueling post-election demonstrations that have filled the capital’s public squares since the weekend.
Iran’s state-run Press TV quoted the government as calling Western interference “intolerable.” The U.S. State Department confirmed the English-language channel’s report that the Iranian government had summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain.
The two countries broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But President Barack Obama has offered to open talks with Iranian leaders to end a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.
P.J. Crowley, chief spokesman for the State Department, said in an interview with MSNBC-TV that the United States was withholding judgment about whether the election was conducted fairly. He reiterated Obama’s insistence that Washington was not interfering in Iranian internal affairs.
“This is not about the United States. It’s about Iran and the people of Iran,” Crowley said.
“It’s not for the United States to determine who will be the leader of Iran,” he said, adding that Washington hoped that Iran would “resolve this in a way that is transparent, credible and most of all peaceful.”
Obama has been criticized by some Republicans for his muted reaction to developments in Iran. The president said in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday that he shared the world’s concerns about the election but that he had to move cautiously because “the easiest way for reactionary forces inside Iran to crush reformers is to say it’s the U.S. that is encouraging those reformers.”
“What I’ve said is, look, it’s up to the Iranian people to make a decision,” he said. “We are not meddling.”
Ahmadinejad returns home
Ahmadinejad, who has dismissed the unrest as little more than “passions after a soccer match,” returned to Tehran on Wednesday after attending a summit meeting in Russia that was delayed a day by the unrest. He held a cabinet meeting and went on state television to insist that the people had voted for his “policies of justice.”
The crackdown on dissent continued, with more arrests of opposition figures reported and the country’s most powerful military force — the Revolutionary Guard — saying Iranian Web sites and bloggers must remove any materials that “create tension” or face legal action.
Khamenei has told Mousavi to pursue his demands through the electoral system and has called for Iranians to unite behind their Islamic government, an extraordinary appeal in response to tensions over the presidential vote.
But Mousavi appears unwilling to back down. “We want a peaceful rally to protest the unhealthy trend of the election and realize our goal of annulling the results,” Mousavi said Wednesday.
Mousavi and his supporters accuse the government of rigging the election to declare Ahmadinejad the overwhelming winner. Their street protests, paired with dissent from powerful clerical and political figures, have presented one of the gravest threats to Iran’s complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"It's changing the way Iranians see the supreme leader and the system in general," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian affairs analyst. "That opens up the system up in ways it's never faced before."
Chances for a full-scale collapse are considered very remote. The ruling clerics still have deep public support and are defended by Iran's most powerful military force — the Revolutionary Guard — and a vast network of militias.
Opposition movement breaks ground
But Mousavi's opposition movement has broken significant ground. It has forced Khamenei into the center of the escalating crisis and broken taboos about questioning his role as the final word on all critical matters.
Javedanfar believes two key factors should be watched: whether the opposition movement can keep its show of strength on the streets for several more weeks and, more importantly, if it can bring in influential voices from the Islamic clergy.
Shortly after the election, Mousavi appealed for the backing of clerics in the holy city of Qom, Iran's seat of Islamic learning and a critical political base for the theocracy. But received shows of support from several prominent liberal and dissident religious figures, including Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who said that "no sound mind" would accept the election results.
But Mousavi, who was prime minister in the 1980s, has not captured widespread support among the Qom clerics. That doesn't mean, however, that they support Ahmadinejad, either.
The wild card for Mousavi's movement is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts — a cleric-run body that is empowered to choose or dismiss Iran's supreme leader. Khamenei is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor, and the assembly has never used its power to remove Iran's highest authority.
Critical of Ahmadinejad
Rafsanjani was a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad during the election, but has not publicly backed Mousavi. It is not known whether Mousavi has actively courted Rafsanjani or if they have held talks.
But Iranian TV showed pictures of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's daughter, speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters, carrying pictures of Khomeini.
Robin Niblett, director of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, said he does not believe Mousavi wants to topple Iran's theocracy, but his allegations of vote fraud could undermine the authority and respect of Khamenei.
"It is a split itself over this election and the broader grand strategy of the country," Niblett said. "I don't believe the protesters want to overthrow the system at this time — although their ire at Khamenei may yet increase."
Election tensions appeared to be spreading further into the Iranian political and religious classes — and even into the realm of sports.
Soccer players show support
Five Iranian soccer players, including captain Ali Karimi, wore green wristbands in an apparent sign of support for Mousavi at a World Cup Asian qualifying match in South Korea. State television showed the players wearing them for the entire first half, but the bands were gone by the time the second half started.
Blogs and Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been vital conduits for Iranians to inform the world about protests and violence. The Web became more essential after the government barred foreign media Tuesday from leaving their offices to report on demonstrations on the streets of Tehran.
Jo Yong-hak / ReutersA senior Iranian prosecutor told NBC News that anyone found guilty of “incitement” could face the death penalty.
But the unrest appeared to be reaching the government and the country’s religious elite.
Iran’s most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, said widespread vote fraud had undermined the legitimacy of the ruling Islamic system and that "no sound mind" would accept the results.
“A government that is based on intervening in [people’s] vote has no political or religious legitimacy,” said Montazeri, who had once been set to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader until he was ousted because of criticisms of the revolution.
Meanwhile, the semiofficial ISNA news agency and the private ILNA news agency reported that scuffles broke out between two legislators in an open session of Parliament after they argued about the election. The clash followed a parliamentary committee’s meeting with Mousavi and a report from the speaker of Parliament.
To try to placate the opposition, the main electoral authority has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities. The recount would be overseen by the Guardian Council.
Mousavi says the Guardian Council is not neutral and has already indicated that it supports Ahmadinejad. He and the two other candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad are calling for an independent investigation.
More on Iran
Contributing to this report: Ali Arouzi and Richard Engel of NBC News; David Shuster of MSNBC-TV; John Harwood of CNBC; The Associated Press; and Reuters.