Iran Accuses US of Role in Election Crisis

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Iran directly accused the United States of
meddling in the deepening crisis over a disputed presidential
election and broadened its media clampdown Wednesday to include
blogs and news Web sites. But protesters took to the streets in
growing defiance of the country's Islamic rulers.

The sweep of events - including more arrests and a call for
another mass opposition march through Tehran - displayed the
sharpening attacks by authorities but also the unprecedented
challenges directed at the very heart of Iran's Islamic regime: its
supreme leader and the cleric-run system.

Any serious shift of the protest anger toward Iran's non-elected
theocracy would sharply change the stakes. Instead of a clash over
the June 12 election results, it would become a showdown over the
core premise of Iran's system of rule - the almost unlimited
authority of the clerics at the top.

For the moment, however, both sides appear to be using the same
tactics since the disputed results showed hard-line President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the landslide winner.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi called for another mass
rally Thursday in open defiance of Iran's most powerful figure,
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has urged the nation to
unite behind the Islamic state.

Authorities rounded up perceived dissidents and tried to further
muzzle Web sites and other networks used by Mousavi's backers to
share information and send out details of Iran's crisis after
foreign journalists were banned from reporting in the streets.

Officials also stepped up claims that foreign hands have been
behind the unrest.

A statement by state-run Press TV blamed Washington for
"intolerable" interference in the bloody showdown over
allegations of vote-rigging and fraud. The report, on Press TV,
cited no evidence.

It said the government summoned the Swiss ambassador, who
represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain about American
interference. The two countries severed diplomatic relations after
the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The State Department this week asked Twitter to postpone a
scheduled maintenance shutdown of its service to keep information
flowing from inside Iran, three U.S. officials said, speaking on
condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

A State Department spokesman said Washington was withholding
judgment about the election and was not interfering in Iran's
internal affairs. President Barack Obama has offered to open talks
with Iranian leaders to end a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.

For nearly that entire time, Iran's ruling clerics held
uncontested power over nearly every critical decision, including
possible talks with Washington. But the upheavals have pushed them
into unfamiliar territory.

Khamenei and his inner circle have been drawn into a messy and
public crisis - with the election dispute even bringing possible
splits within the theocracy.

Chances for a full-scale collapse are considered very remote.
The ruling clerics still have deep public support and are defended
by Iran's strongest forces, the Revolutionary Guard and a vast
network of militias around the country.

But Mousavi's opposition movement has broken significant ground.
It has forced Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, into the center of the escalating crisis and broken
taboos about questioning his role as the final word on all critical
matters.

"It's changing the way Iranians see the supreme leader and the
system in general," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian affairs
analyst. "That opens up they system up in ways it's never faced
before."

Javedanfar believes two critical factors should be watched:
whether the opposition movement can keep its show of strength on
the streets for several more weeks and, more importantly, if it can
bring in influential voices from Iran's Islamic clergy.

Shortly after the election, Mousavi appealed for the backing of
clerics in the holy city of Qom, Iran's seat of Islamic learning
and a critical political base for the theocracy. But received shows
of support from several prominent liberal and dissident religious
figures, including Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who said
that "no sound mind" would accept the election results.

But Mousavi, who served as prime minister during the 1980s, has
not captured widespread support among the Qom clerics. That doesn't
mean, however, they are supporting Ahmadinejad, either.

Many have congratulated Khamenei for holding the election, but
any mention of Ahmadinejad's victory was noticeably absent.

The wild card for Mousavi's movement is former President Hashemi
Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts - a cleric-run body
that is empowered to choose or dismiss Iran's supreme leader.
Khamenei is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor, and the
assembly has never used its power to remove Iran's highest
authority.

Rafsanjani was a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad during the
election, but has not publicly backed Mousavi. It is not known
whether Mousavi has actively courted Rafsanjani's support or if
they have held talks.

But Iranian TV showed pictures of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's
daughter, speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters, carrying
pictures of Khomeini.

Robin Niblett, director of the Royal Institute for International
Affairs in London, said he does not believe Mousavi wants to topple
Iran's theocracy, but his allegations of vote fraud could undermine
the authority and respect of Khamenei.

"It is a split itself over this election and the broader grand
strategy of the country," Niblett said. "I don't believe the
protesters want to overthrow the system at this time - although
their ire at Khamenei may yet increase."

Mousavi urged followers to wear black Thursday to the planned
rally in mourning for the alleged election fraud and the lives lost
in the protests. Seven demonstrators were shot Monday by pro-regime
militia in the first confirmed deaths since the unrest erupted
after the election.

Mousavi's call followed a rare public appeal to unite behind the
Islamic state. Khamenei has normally remained aloof from direct
involvement in political disputes, but the scope of crisis has
pushed him into an unfamiliar role as mediator.

Mousavi's backers have now staged three straight days of major
marches in Tehran, including hundreds of thousands of people Monday
in a huge procession that recalled the protests of the Islamic
Revolution.

An amateur video showed thousands marching Wednesday on an
overpass in support of Mousavi's campaign.

A crackdown on dissent continued, with more arrests of
opposition figures reported, and the country's most powerful
military force - the Revolutionary Guard - saying that Iranian Web
sites and bloggers must remove materials that "create tension" or
face legal action.

In one high-profile display of apparent support for the
opposition, several Iranian soccer players wrapped their wrists
with green tape - the color of Mousavi's campaign - during a World
Cup qualifying match in South Korea that was televised in Iran.

In Paris, demonstrators held up banners saying "Freedom of
Expression in Iran," and "Where is my vote?" near the Eiffel
Tower. In Rome, about 300 people gathered to show solidarity with
Mousavi.

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

The Revolutionary Guard, an elite military force answering to
Khamenei, said through the state news service that its
investigators have taken action against "deviant news sites" that
encouraged public disturbances. The Guard is a separate military
with enormous domestic influence and control of Iran's most
important defense programs. It is one of the establishment's key
sources of power.

The statement alleged that dissident Web sites were backed by
Canadian, U.S. and British interests, a frequent charge by
hard-liners against the opposition.

"Legal action will be very strong and call on them to remove
such materials," it said.

The U.S.-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran
said several dozen noted figures associated with the reform
movement have been arrested, among them politicians, intellectuals,
activists and journalists.

Tehran-based analyst Saeed Leilaz, who is often quoted by
Western media, was arrested Wednesday by plainclothes security
officers who came to his home, said his wife, Sepehrnaz Panahi.

At least 10 Iranian journalists have been arrested since the
election, Reporters Without Borders said.

The main electoral authority has said it was prepared to conduct
a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim
irregularities. The recount would be overseen by the Guardian
Council, an unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts
close to Khamenei.

Mousavi alleges the Guardian Council is not neutral and has
already indicated it supports Ahmadinejad. He wants an independent
investigation.


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