TEHRAN // Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, yesterday called for an end to the biggest street protests since the revolution which have roiled Iran for nearly a week, and warned that any further bloodshed would not be the fault of the state. In his first public comments following the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential vote, the Ayatollah gave his unequivocal support for the incumbent, dashing hopes for a new election.
Despite calls for an annulment, and claims of election fraud, the Ayatollah said Mr Ahmadinejad's victory could not be doubted given the 11 million vote margin. "The people have chosen whom they wanted," he told the tens of thousands of people who had gathered at Tehran University to hear him speak. Millions more watched the sermon live on the state-run television. Mr Ahmadinejad, defeated conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, judiciary chief Ayatollah Seyed Mahmoud Shahroudi also attended the prayers.
The congregation chanted slogans to express their devotion to Mr Khamenei and their support for Mr Ahmadinejad, and against the US, Israel and Britain. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate whose defeat in the election was the litmus for the current "green wave" of protests that have swept through Iran's major cities, did not attend prayers. Amnesty International said yesterday that at least 10 people had been killed since the results were announced early last Saturday. Iranian state radio has reported seven people killed.
The Ayatollah said street protests were not the right way to dispute the election results and that it should go through legal channels. Iran's top legislative body, the Guardian Council, is considering complaints by the three losing candidates, but has said it would recount some disputed ballot boxes, rather than annul the vote as demanded by Mr Mousavi and another candidate, Mehdi Karrubi. The Ayatollah declared the massive vote turnout of nearly 85 per cent as a "political quake for the enemy" and "real celebration" for the friends of the country.
He portrayed the remarkable voter participation as proof of overwhelming popular support for the Islamic state and an endorsement of its legitimacy - which he claimed western powers and "Zionist media" were now trying to undermine. However, analysts say that trying to blame foreign plots will not convince the many Iranians who believe Mr Ahmadinejad's victory was fraudulent. "I will not surrender to illegal innovations," the Ayatollah said and warned that opposition leaders would be held responsible for any further "blood, violence and chaos" on the streets.
The Association of Combatant Clerics, led by former president Seyed Mohammad Khatami, and the National Confidence Party (Etemad Melli) led by Mr Karrubi have called for a rally today. The two parties applied for permission from the interior ministry to hold the rally but the governor of Tehran province, Morteza Tamadon, said no permission had been given. Later yesterday, an aide to Mr Mousavi said no protest was scheduled.
Posters on the Twitter internet site, which has played a key role in passing on information both inside and outside the country, had said the "Sea of Green" protest would take place at 4pm today. Even if Mr Mousavi agrees to call off protests, it remains far from certain that many who have taken to the streets in anger at the "stolen election" will obey calls from opposition leaders to stay at home.
Residents in Tehran last night climbed on their roofs and shouted "God is Great", in a show of defiance, the Associated Press reported. It was a tactic Mr Mousavi borrowed from the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asked Iranians to show unity against the US-backed shah by shouting "Allahu Akbar" from their roofs. The Ayatollah, in his sermon, also sought to ease some of the tension between the candidates.
He said that all four presidential rivals, including Mr Mousavi who served as Mr Khamenei's prime minister before the post was scrapped in 1989, were loyal to the system and had served in high positions. He also strongly criticised the candidates, including Mr Ahmadinejad, for attempts at slander and the levelling of unfounded accusations against each other in their live television debates before the election.
Mr Ahmadinejad had accused the family of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of two of Iran's most powerful councils, and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the head of the investigation bureau of the supreme leader's office, of financial corruption. Calling Mr Rafsanjani one of the pillars of the Islamic Revolution before and after the Shah was deposed, and a man who spent his own money for the cause of the revolution, the Ayatollah said any charges of corruption against his family members should be investigated by judicial authorities.
However, he made clear that he was throwing his weight behind Mr Ahmadinejad, whose views on issues of foreign policy and social justice, were closer to his own, he said. A leaflet calling for a march on Mr Rafsanjani's office after Friday prayers had been circulated among the congregation by a hardline group before the sermon, but there have been no reports of the march actually taking place. Ayatollah Khamenei harshly attacked the international media, particularly the BBC, for discouraging people from voting and inciting tension after the elections were held.
* Correspondent Michael Theodoulou contributed to this report from Cyprus email@example.com