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Iran clerics close ranks behind president

Mideast Iran Election
Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman for the Iranian Guardian Council, speaks at a news conference in front of a picture of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, in Tehran on Tuesday. The 12-member council said it found only "slight irregularities" in the presidential election.Vahid Salemi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iran's ruling clerics closed ranks around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday, hailing him as a "champion" amid signs that he may have begun purging his government of anyone perceived as an opposition sympathizer.

A sense of resignation mingled with indignation settled over supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's embattled opposition leader, whose insistence that massive fraud robbed him of victory in the June 12 presidential election touched off two weeks of violent street clashes between protesters and police.

Iran's highest electoral authority proclaimed the election outcome valid Monday — paving the way for Ahmadinejad to be sworn in next month — and the incumbent leader sent a stern message to those in his administration who survived his first term: He won't tolerate dissent in his second.

Three senior Oil Ministry officials with loose ties to Mousavi were fired, the independent news agency Fararu reported. All three were prominent members of ex-President Mohammad Khatami's government and reportedly were allies of another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Both former presidents were considered to be backers of Mousavi's bid for the presidency.

Ahmadinejad basked in the praise of ranking clerics and supporters who celebrated his re-election in a landslide questioned by Western analysts who have called his roughly 2-to-1 margin of victory suspicious and improbable.

The semiofficial news agency FarsNews quoted Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Taskhiri as saying in a congratulatory message that Ahmadinejad has been "a champion, always on the scene." Another top cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, said the election was "the cleanest ever" in the history of the Islamic Republic.

Low profile for Mousavi
In validating the election results, the 12-member Guardian Council — which the opposition accuses of favoring Ahmadinejad — said it found only "slight irregularities" after randomly selecting and recounting 10 percent of the nearly 40 million ballots cast.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already had endorsed the outcome on June 19.

Ahmad Mirzai, a 45-year-old worker at a private Tehran company, said the council's decision "was fair and based on reality. Iranians love Ahmadinejad and if he runs for another election, again, the result will be the same."

But Mousavi supporters, whose massive street protests brought on an unrelenting crackdown by security forces wielding batons, tear gas and guns, expressed disgust and dismay.

"I am not convinced," said a 35-year-old high school teacher who gave her name only as Sahar for fear of government recrimination. "Everybody I knew voted for Mousavi. The council was not a fair judge."

"It's illogical, illegal and maybe even irreligious that someone passes the law, enforces it and referees the complaints themselves," said another disgruntled Iranian who gave his name only as Jalili.

Mousavi has made few public appearances recently and has said he would seek official approval for any future rallies.

Iran's cleric-led government said Ahmadinejad would be sworn in for a second four-year term as early as July 26.

Abolfazl Fateh, head of Mousavi's information committee, told a pro-Mousavi Web site Tuesday that widespread post-election detentions and investigations were "unethical and illegal."

Blaming foreigners
Iran's leaders have been trying to blame the unrest on foreign conspirators, a longtime staple of government rhetoric about internal dissent. But Fateh said claims of Western involvement were giving the people "the wrong address" for any wrongdoing.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said leaders at next week's Group of Eight summit in Italy would discuss the possibility of slapping new sanctions on Iran because of the ferocity of its clampdown on opposition demonstrators.

But Sweden, which takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union on Wednesday, said the 27-nation bloc was taking a wait-and-see approach.

Although the EU and the United States have expressed concern over the regime's repression, both want to leave room for resuming dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program.

The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is covertly trying to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists its program is peaceful and geared solely toward generating electricity.