Video: Iran's 'accidental' opposition leader takes center stage

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 6/18/2009 9:38:20 PM ET 2009-06-19T01:38:20

After another day of massive demonstrations against last week’s disputed presidential election, Iranian authorities and protest leaders uneasily awaited a rare public statement Friday from the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei planned to deliver a sermon at Friday prayers in Tehran, something he does only two or three times a year, the Iran’s state-run Press TV reported Thursday.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and two other main presidential candidates, who have echoed Mousavi’s allegation that the election was rigged, said they would attend the sermon, Iran’s al-Alam Arabic television channel reported.

There was no immediate word on whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would attend. Ahmadinejad, whom election authorities declared won in a landslide June 12, generally shows up whenever Khamenei speaks.

Ahmadinejad appeared to take the growing opposition more seriously and backtracked on his dismissal of the protesters as "dust" and sore losers.

U.S. officials and specialists in Iranian politics said the sermon could give Khamenei the opportunity to make a definitive statement on the election and its aftermath.

“The massive turnout of the Iranian nation in the Friday prayers congregation will manifest the solidarity and unity among Iranians,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency said.  

Mousavi’s movement has forced Khamenei into the center of the growing crisis, questioning his role as the final authority on all critical issues. So far, he has tolerated the demonstrations, urging the people to pursue allegations of election fraud within the limits of the cleric-led system.

The government tried to placate Mousavi and his supporters by inviting him and two other candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad to a meeting Saturday with Iran's main electoral authority, the Guardian Council. Abbasali Khadkhodaei, a spokesman for the council, said it received 646 complaints from the three candidates.

Mousavi joins protesters
Hundreds of thousands of protesters dressed in black and green flooded the streets of Tehran on Thursday in a somber, candlelit show of defiance and mourning for those killed in clashes after the disputed election.

Many in the huge crowd walked silently and lit black candles as night fell. Others wore green wristbands or ribbons and carried flowers as they filed into Imam Khomeini Square, a large plaza in the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, witnesses said. Green is Mousavi’s campaign color.

Mousavi, dressed in a black suit, was almost swallowed up by the throng as he addressed them briefly through a handheld loudspeaker. Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television designed for foreigners, said he called for calm and self-restraint from the crowd that the broadcaster estimated in the hundreds of thousands. The size of the crowd could not be independently verified.

Demonstrators marched silently until they arrived at the square, where some chanted “Death to the dictator!” and “Where are our votes!” witnesses said.

Video: Emotions run high in Iran Foreign news organizations have been banned from covering the protests over the election last Friday, which the government declared that Ahmadinejad won by a landslide. Mousavi and his supporters claim that the election was rigged and that he was the true winner.

The demonstrators included people from all walks of life. Young, trendy girls with their scarves pushed back on their foreheads joined women in chadors, the traditional cloak worn by Iranian women in public, NBC News reported.

Americans, many of Iranian descent, have joined the protests in cities across the United States . Shouting slogans and holding signs, several hundred people demonstrated Wednesday evening outside the Iranian interests section in Washington, D.C. The protesters denounced Ahmadinejad and called for a new election.

Organizers planned for a march Thursday evening to the Chinese Embassy to protest China’s recognition of the election results, followed by a similar march to the White House on Saturday.

Limited recount
Trying again to satisfy the protesters’ demands, Iran’s main electoral authority invited Mousavi and the two other main candidates to a meeting. Al-Alam said the three candidates would meet with the Guardian Council on Saturday.

The unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts, which is close to Khamenei, has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities.

Mousavi charges that the Guardian Council is not neutral and that it supports Ahmadinejad, and he has demanded an independent investigation and a new election.

The council’s spokesman, Abbasali Khadkhodaei, said Thursday that it received a total of 646 complaints from the three candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad.

The council provided few other details, but the number of complaints raised the possibility that even a limited recount could turn into a far larger and messier exercise than the government desires.

People in the streets
The huge protests began Monday, when hundreds of thousands turned out in a large procession that recalled the scale of protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Seven demonstrators were shot and killed that day by pro-regime militia in the first confirmed deaths during the unrest.

The massive gathering was followed by three days of marches along Tehran’s main avenues, presenting one of the gravest threats to Iran’s complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged out of the Islamic revolution that brought down the Western-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The ruling clerics still command deep public support and are defended by Iran’s most powerful military force, the Revolutionary Guard, as well as a vast network of militias.

But Mousavi’s movement has forced Khamenei into the center of the growing crisis, questioning his role as the final authority on all critical issues.

Protest targets
For the moment, protesters have focused on the results of the balloting rather than challenging the Islamic system of government. But a shift in anger toward Iran’s non-elected theocracy would sharply change the stakes. Instead of a clash over the election results, it would become a showdown over the foundation of Iran’s system of rule, the almost unlimited authority of the clerics at the top.

Video: Iranians march in show of mourning The Iranian government has directly accused the United States of meddling in the deepening crisis. A statement by state-run Press TV blamed Washington for “intolerable” interference. The report cited no evidence.

“Despite wide coverage of unrest, foreign media have not been able to provide any evidence on a single violation in the election process,” state radio said Thursday.

The government has blocked certain Web sites, such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are vital conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Many other sites, including Gmail and Yahoo, were unusually slow and rarely connect.

Mousavi has condemned the blocking of Web sites, saying the government did not tolerate the voice of the opposition.

More on Iran   |  Mousavi   |  Ahmadinejad

Alex Johnson of msnbc.com, The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC station WRC of Washington contributed to this report.

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