Iran's supreme leader on Friday warned that further anti-government protests could trigger a harsh crackdown as he declared that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won an "absolute victory" in the presidential election held a week ago.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday effectively dismissed any possibility for a revote in the June 12 election, confirming Ahmadinejad's win and rejecting opposition claims that the election was rigged. He demanded an end to street protests that have pushed the country into political crisis and said that if they continued, any blood spilled would be on the hands of opposition leaders.
It was unclear whether Khamenei's sermon supersedes a call Thursday from the country's powerful Guardian Council inviting chief opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi and two other defeated candidates to a meeting to address their grievances. The council had said it would decide Sunday whether to conduct a recount.
"If the difference was 100,000 or 500,000 or 1 million, well, one may say fraud could have happened. But how can one rig 11 million votes?" Khamenei said during Friday prayers at Tehran University, adding that the "legal structures and electoral regulations of this country do not allow vote rigging."
"Some of our enemies in different parts of the world intended to depict this absolute victory, this definitive victory, as a doubtful victory," he said, repeating a claim that foreign media and governments — specifically in the U.S. and Great Britain — were to blame for the week of unrest following the vote.
"It is your victory. They cannot manipulate it," he said.
Khamenei also issued a thinly veiled threat, saying leaders "must be determined at the ballot box ... not in the streets."
"If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible," he said.
"Some may imagine that street action will create political leverage against the system and force the authorities to give in to threats. No, this is wrong," Khamenei said.
The sermon — his first since mass protests began — upped the ante in a game of poker between Khamenei, who holds unparalleled power under Iran's constitution, and Mousavi, who must decide whether to risk bloodshed or back off and accept defeat. Mousavi and his supporters — who have called for another rally on Saturday — could pose the greatest challenge to Iran's theocratic power structure since the 1979 revolution that swept the pro-Western Shah from power and installed an Islamic republic.
At least seven people have been killed in protests since the election. Scores of Mousavi backers and dissidents have been rounded up and tight controls placed on foreign and domestic media.
In defending Ahmadinejad, Khamenei said his views were closer to the president's than to those of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the powerful Assembly of Experts and is a patron of Mousavi.
Hours after Khamenei's sermon, another defeated presidential candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, joined the call for the election result to be cancelled.
President Obama's response to the crisis in Iran in the past week has been guarded. He has said the decision on who should lead in Iran belongs to the people there, but on Tuesday he acknowledged that opposition to Ahmadinejad represented a challenge to Tehran's anti-Western view. Obama said the protests showed "there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy."
Khamenei, in his sermon, said Obama's statements contradicted the president's goal of better relations with Iran.
"The U.S. president said, 'We were waiting for a day like this to see people on the street,' " Khamenei said. "They write to us and say they respect the Islamic Republic, and then they make comments like this. ... Which one should we believe?"
The House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Tehran's crackdown on demonstrators.
Rep. Mike Pence, who co-sponsored the resolution, said he disagrees with the administration that it must not meddle in Iran's affairs.
"When Ronald Reagan went before the Brandenburg Gate, he did not say Mr. (Mikhail) Gorbachev, that wall is none of our business," said Pence, an Indiana Republican, of President Reagan's famous challenge to the Soviet leader to "tear down that wall."
California Democrat Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the resolution, said "it is not for us to decide who should run Iran, much less determine the real winner of the June 12 election."
"But we must reaffirm our strong belief that the Iranian people have a fundamental right to express their views about the future of their country freely and without intimidation," he added.
From NPR staff and wire service reports