Supreme Leader Addresses Iranians After Unrest

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Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed the nation on Friday for the first time since the disputed presidential election triggered the biggest street protests the country has seen.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Just one statement from Iran's supreme leader today shows what side he is taking in that country's election dispute. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared at Friday prayer services in Tehran. This is a regular part of Iranian life where high officials appear and talk both politics and religion. Ayatollah Khamenei said that vote rigging in Iran's presidential election was impossible, which would appear to mean he supports the victory claimed by Iran's president, the man's whose policy the supreme leader also says he supports. NPR's Mike Shuster was listening from Dubai in the Persian Gulf and he is on the line. Mike is there any doubt here that the supreme leader endorsed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bid to keep his job.

MIKE SHUSTER: No, not the slightest doubt at all Steve. He essentially said, he pointed to the 11 million vote gap that the government says was between the winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the loser, the challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and he said it's simply not possible to rig a vote like that so that there would be an 11 million vote gap and therefore Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scored what he called a definitive victory. So I don't think there's any doubt whatsoever of where he stands in all of this.

INSKEEP: Now this is the supreme leader who added to suspicion about vote rigging because he has so rapidly, so quickly, endorsed the election and seemed to even say that it was ordained by God, but then he seemed to be backing down and ordered a recount a couple of days later - has he recovered his hard line stance here then?

SHUSTER: Well, he seems to be trying to synthesize both views in a single perspective, because he also said that sure if there are some complaints or if there are some allegations of improprieties in the vote, the candidates who are not satisfied should pursue legal means. And in fact, he had, a few days ago, endorsed the Guardian Council - which is the council that oversees elections and oversees the parliament - he endorsed them taking another look at some of the alleged irregularities. And yesterday they said there were more than 600 of them, and that they would meet with Mousavi and two other minor candidates tomorrow to discuss this. And today, supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, essentially said the same thing, but only after he said it was a definitive victory and there couldn't have been vote rigging on that scale. It's a bit of a contradiction, but essentially he seemed to be saying, we know what the outcome is but if there is dissatisfaction it should be pursued within the Islamic system and not in the streets.

INSKEEP: Or to put it another way, sure we will look into your complaints but you're going to lose, he is telling people that.

SHUSTER: Yes, he says that sure, we'll look into your complaints. There may be some legitimate ones but that's certainly not enough to change the result of this election.

INSKEEP: Now you mentioned Mousavi, of course, he's the candidate who lost and who says the election was stolen from him. What, if anything, did the Ayatollah say about the thousands of demonstrators who've protested in his behalf in recent days.

SHUSTER: Essentially he dismissed them. He said it is not for people to go into the streets to change things. He said they should change them at the ballot boxes. And then he said, if there is trouble in the streets, if there is damage in the streets, it's up to the political leaders - and I think he was meaning Mousavi, specifically there - it's up to political leaders to control it or else they will suffer the consequences. He did use that phrase - suffer the consequences. He didn't say much about what he meant about that, but it seemed to be an ominous tone toward the end of the speech.

INSKEEP: And Mike, as somebody who has covered Iran for a number of years, I would like to know what you think the political force can be, of the Ayatollah also saying he was concerned about foreign interference here.

SHUSTER: Well, actually I found that, again, a bit of a contradiction. He was blaming the political leaders and their followers for going into the streets. Then he was talking about violence that was taking place after some of these large demonstrations. He said that people like Mousavi were acting within the Islamic system, but then blamed the violence on the United States, Israel, Great Britain and other foreign powers. It's still a little bit difficult to reconcile.

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Shuster monitoring the Ayatollah's speech from Dubai.

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