By Thomas Erdbrink, www.WashingtonPost.com
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared a “new beginning” for Iran late Saturday after he was declared victor in the presidential election, but as he spoke on national television violent demonstrations rolled through several areas of Tehran. Supporters of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi burned dumpsters, threw stones and clashed with police in the worst rioting in Tehran in many years.
The Interior Ministry, controlled by Ahmadinejad, announced that he had been elected in the first round with 62.6 percent of the vote, compared with less than 34 percent for Mousavi, who was the leading challenger. Turnout was a record 86 percent of the 46.2 million eligible voters.
Announcement of the results triggered protests throughout the day. Families lined the streets in the middle-class neighborhood of Saadat Abad, cheering on the demonstration and shouting, “Death to the dictator!”
Ahmadinejad’s reelection will pose fresh challenges to the United States. It has pressed Iran to halt a nuclear program that critics say could be used for weapons, but Iran says it is for civilian purposes. Ahmadinejad has also taken a sharply confrontational approach in foreign affairs.
Talks between Iran and the United States are still a possibility with Ahmadinejad at the helm. On several occasions, he has said he wants such talks. His oft-repeated verbal attacks on Israel are not expected to change.
After the results were announced, the Obama administration said it was examining the charges of election fraud. “We are monitoring the situation as it unfolds in Iran, but we, like the rest of the world, are waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
The White House released a two-sentence statement praising “the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians,” but it expressed concern about “reports of irregularities,” the Associated Press reported.
In Tehran, Mousavi’s whereabouts were unknown. Reporters on their way to a news conference by the former candidate were stopped by security personnel, who said the meeting had been canceled. Several journalists were beaten.
In his speech from the garden of the presidential palace, Ahmadinejad, who campaigned as a champion of the working class, lauded the high turnout in the voting, which he described as free and fair.
“There were two options,” he said. “Either to return to the old days or continue our leap forward towards high peaks . . . and progress. Fortunately, the people voted for that last option.” He said the Iranian people had chosen a program over a personality, and he promised to continue his policies “only with more energy.” He also attacked foreign media coverage of the campaign, saying “they have launched the heaviest propaganda and psychological war against the Iranian nation.”
Mousavi, who had said on Friday that he won, posted a statement on his website rejecting the vote tally as rigged.
“I’m warning that I won’t surrender to this manipulation,” he said. “The outcome of what we’ve seen from the performance of officials . . . is nothing but shaking the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sacred system and governance of lies and dictatorship.”
He warned that “people won’t respect those who take power through fraud.” The headline on the website declared, “I won’t give in to this dangerous manipulation,” the AP reported.
Mousavi appealed to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to intervene. But Khamenei had already issued a televised statement that declared Ahmadinejad the victor, and he appealed to Iranians and the defeated candidates to support the president. Khamenei’s statement made it unlikely the election results will be overturned.
In his address, Ahmadinejad criticized his opponents, particularly the influential clerics and former officials behind Mousavi who have ties to the 1979 Islamic revolution. He said it did not matter what they had done at the time of the revolution. “It matters what they do now,” he insisted, suggesting that his opponents were not working for the people.
Tensions enveloped Tehran early Saturday after Ahmadinejad had been declared the victor. Youths, families, and young women in traditional black chadors gathered around the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, where the votes had been counted.
Fights erupted in several locations across Tehran soon after Khamenei’s televised statement.
On Mottahari Street, protesters set three buses on fire. Riot police appeared in full protective clothing and helmets, wielding batons as they raced through the streets in two-man teams on red motorcycles. Others stood in lines between three burned city buses.
Hundreds of protesters rained stones at the police. Thick black smoke filled the air. Loud thuds could be heard in the distance.
“We want freedom!” protesters shouted. Many covered their faces with green cloth, the color of their candidate, Mousavi. About a dozen ran after someone they thought was an undercover policeman. Dressed in a checkered shirt, wearing a backpack, he had stood between the mostly younger protesters, trying to film them.
“You are without honor!” two girls covered in traditional chadors shouted at police.
Traffic sign poles that had been ripped from the ground lined the streets. “Fight them!” one man shouted. “Death to the dictatorship!” others yelled at they ran toward the riot police.
In other locations, demonstrators threw policemen to the ground, who were then beaten and kicked by bystanders. “They have insulted us with this result,” said Mehrdad, a student who refused to give his family name. “We want Mousavi,” the men around him said.
“Commando troops are beating the people. I even saw they beat an old lady,” said Morteza Alviri, a former major from Tehran, now a campaign official for Mehdi Karroubi, a former candidate. He was trapped in his car by the protests and spoke by phone. “They were beating her to a pulp,” he shouted.
The demonstrations continued into Saturday night, with riot police receiving support from Iran’s voluntary paramilitary force, the baseej.
Ahmad Zeidabadi, a political dissident, was arrested Saturday evening, his wife, Mandieh Mohammadi, confirmed. There were reports that 11 other prominent opponents were also arrested. Mobile telephones services were cut and social network sites Facebook and Twitter were filtered. Internet connections as a whole were down part of Saturday. Iranian media remained silent on the riots. State television showed voters saying it was time to move forward and accept the result.
Mousavi was not seen Saturday. In the afternoon, Ali Reza Adeli, a senior official in Mousavi’s campaign, denied reports that his candidate was under house arrest. Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, told the BBC by phone that she and her husband will continue to fight to achieve the “rights of Iranian voters.”
Ahmadinejad announced a “victory party” on Sunday at a central square that Mousavi supporters used in recent weeks to stage their election rallies.
“We are hopeful,” the president said during his speech. “Now it’s time to move on and continue to build our great Iran.”