TEHRAN // Supporters of the re-elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the defeated presidential contender Mir Hossein Mousavi staged mass rallies in Tehran yesterday, only kilometres apart and hours after the Guardian Council, Iran's electoral watchdog and a powerful governmental organisation, announced it would conduct a partial recount of Saturday's contested presidential vote. On the fourth day of the increasingly more violent crisis, tens of thousands gathered in the central Vali Asr Square in support of Mr Ahmadinejad in response to a call from the state-run Islamic Propagation Organisation, waving flags and chanting "Down with Israel, down with the US" and "Death to hypocrites".
"This nation will protect and defend its revolution in any way," said Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a prominent legislator and supporter of Mr Ahmadinejad, as the crowd in Vali Asr Square pumped their fists in the air and cheered in support, images on state-run television showed. Mr Mousavi had earlier in the day called for his supporters to abandon a planned rally for fear of a repeat of the violence they encountered on Monday resulting in at least eight deaths and scores of injuries and arrests.
In a message on his website he said he would not be attending any rally and asked his supporters to "not fall in the trap of street riots" and "exercise self-restraint". But several thousand arrived in Vanak Square, nonetheless, in the city's north, and staged, at first a silent, protest. A correspondent for the state-run Press TV at the pro-reform rally told the anchor by telephone that a "huge" and "massive" crowd was carrying banners of Mr Mousavi, wearing green headbands and covering their mouths in an apparent defence against tear gas. She said the crowd was marching farther north, toward Tajrish Square.
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also said to be at the demonstration. Officials had throughout yesterday warned against "illegal" pro-Mousavi demonstrations. A state directive restricted all foreign media from going outside, making state-run television the only source of live images from the demonstrations. Several foreign media, including Al Arabiya, have been closed down since Saturday and the BBC has reported interference with its broadcasting frequency from within Iran. Many reformist news portals have also been closed.
The authorities have warned they would nip any "velvet revolution" in the bud and have rounded up scores of people in Tehran and other cities, including prominent reformist leaders close to former president Mohammad Khatami. A founding member of Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi's human rights group was also arrested yesterday, a source said. Some telephone, texting and internet services were also disrupted, as protesters turned to Twitter to spread up to the minute word of the dramatic events. The US state department asked the social networking site to delay maintenance plans in order to allow Iranians to communicate. An official speaking condition of anonymity said the Twitter service had become all the more important because of the government shut down of other websites, cell phones, and newspapers.
Mr Ahmadinejad yesterday travelled to Russia after delaying his 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."
In response to widespread internal and international condemnation and questioning of Saturday's election results, which handed Mr Ahmadinejad 63 per cent of the vote against just 34 per cent for Mr Mousavi, the Guardian Council announced yesterday a partial recount. "Changes in the vote count are possible after investigation of [alleged] infringements," Abbasali Kadkhodai, the spokesman for the council, was quoted by the state news agency IRNA.
The Guardian Council met with the representatives of Mr Mousavi, as well as those of Mr Karrubi and Mr Rezai - both of whom have also registered complaints over the election - yesterday to hear their what they had to say. "The Council will decide about annulling the ballots of a box or polling station only if the [alleged] infringements are serious enough to affect the results of the elections," Mr Kadkhodai said.
However, some top opposition figures have said a recount would not do, and were insisting on a new election. Top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a one-time heir to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was later sidelined, called on the youth of the "oppressed nation" to pursue peaceful rallies. Iran's parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, called on the Guardian Council to investigate the complaints of electoral fraud carefully and quickly.
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, one of the leading Shiite sources of emulation, also called on the council to investigate the complaints lodged by the candidates, Iranian Students News Agency reported. The Mousavi Election Anti-Fraud Committee has proposed the formation of a Truth Finding Committee to investigate the infringements before and after the elections to the Guardian Council, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, the chairman of the committee, said at a press conference yesterday.
Mr Mousavi also expressed his preparation to participate in any live television debate over the results. US President Barack Obama said yesterday: "It's not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling, the US president meddling in Iranian elections." How the Iranian controversy is resolved, Mr Obama added, is "something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide".
France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, questioned the legitimacy of the election yesterday, saying the "extent of the fraud" was "proportional to the violent reaction" there. "These elections are dreadful news," Mr Sarkozy told reporters in Gabon's capital Libreville on the sidelines of late Gabonese president Omar Bongo Ondimba's funeral. "The Iranian people deserve something else." The British ambassador in Tehran was summoned to the Iranian foreign ministry yesterday in protest over statements made by the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and foreign secretary, David Miliband, as well as for what the Iranian foreign ministry said was unrealistic reporting by the British media from Iran.
@Email:email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse