Using batons, tear gas and water cannons, security forces and pro-government militias imposed a tense, tentative calm on Tehran late Saturday after a chaotic day of clashes with stone-throwing protesters who defied warnings to stay off the streets.
Rocks and debris filled roadways, and black smoke rose above neighborhoods filled with the haze of tear gas, according to witness accounts. Neither on the streets, where protesters called for another march today, nor in the country’s political establishment were there many signs that the turbulence over Iran’s disputed presidential election would end soon.
Former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a moderate who lost to hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election, would not relent. He delivered a lengthy letter detailing his complaints of irregularities to the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog assigned to examine the vote.
No firm casualty figures emerged from Saturday’s violence. Reports and videos on the Internet suggested that some security forces had opened fire on demonstrators, and witness accounts said bodies were seen in several places. However, none could be verified. There were also unverified reports by witnesses and international monitors of clashes in the cities of Shiraz, Esfahan and Tabriz.
State television reported that three people were injured by an “armed terrorist” who tried to enter the shrine of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “The terrorist was killed,” the news announcer said.
President Obama, who has been treading carefully lest opposition figures be painted as American dupes, issued a statement calling on Iran to respect the rights of its citizens.
“The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching,” he said in the statement. “We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.”
A series of peaceful rallies last week captured the imagination of the West but angered Iranian authorities, who have described them as part of a Western plot to foment a “velvet revolution.”
On Friday, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded that the protesters stop or risk violent reprisal. They began assembling Saturday anyway, and clashes broke out when cordons of police officers and militiamen attempted to block them, beating demonstrators and pushing them into waiting vans.
At one point, riot police fired into the air. They had attracted the ire of a crowd that moved toward them after they roughed up a young woman. Protesters formed unruly rock-throwing mobs that fought running battles with militiamen in camouflage uniforms, witnesses said.
“They clubbed me three times,” said one man, who described himself as a government employee. “I enjoy it.”
The number of demonstrators was down considerably from previous rallies, which drew tens or hundreds of thousands. And the shift from quiet marches to raucous street battles punctuated by radical anti-government slogans may alienate many Iranians.
But even as their neighborhoods were hit by stone-throwing clashes, residents could be seen providing shelter to protesters, allowing strangers into their homes to escape militiamen. Residents brought out first-aid kits to help dress the wounds of those bloodied in the street fighting.
“Women break up the rocks and hand them to the men,” a gray-haired man told a contingent of young people fighting the militiamen.
During one clash southwest of Enghelab (Revolution) Square, an elderly man ambled out of his two-story building, sat on a stool and offered glasses of orange juice to young people running away from the riot police.
“I am sorry . . . I cannot be with you,” he told them. “At least I can quench your thirst. You are my children.”
One man in his 30s who gave his name as Mojtaba said he had been walking toward the march when a Basiji militiaman ordered him to turn back. Then the militiaman struck the unemployed translator with a baton.
“A couple of strokes from a baton aren’t going to stop me,” Mojtaba said. “We’ve been at it for only a week. It will take a year.”
Many said they were enraged by Khamenei’s decision to side openly with Ahmadinejad in the Friday prayer sermon, describing the president’s views as closer to his own.
“This was a mistake,” said an Iranian soldier away from the scene of the clashes. “Now all the anger directed against Ahmadinejad will go against the leader.”
By nightfall, witnesses said, the unrest stretched from the side streets along Enghelab Street from Azadi (Freedom) Street to Vali Asr Street, a miles-long corridor that is among the city’s most important east-west thoroughfares. There were reports that disturbances had also broken out in other parts of the city, especially in key squares in north Tehran, but they could not be confirmed.
Large contingents of police officers and militiamen, some clutching rubber hoses, lined the protest route. Pro-government Ansar-e Hezbollah militiamen roared through Enghelab Street on motorcycles with their batons in the air, chanting, “God praise Hezbollah!” Militiamen could be seen dragging young men away, clubbing them if they resisted.
Tehran’s deputy police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, announced that “as of today, no form of illegal gathering to protest against the election results should take place,” according to state television. He also warned that anyone who directed protesters to gather in the streets could be arrested.
At least 400 police officers have been injured, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.
“I think that we should restore the law more vigorously,” said Brig. Gen. Ahmad Moqqadam, a ranking police official, according to state television. “People are tired. They want to run their business. People want to come to the streets, to travel, to fly somewhere, to go to hospital, but they are stuck in traffic for hours and their rights are denied.”
State television Saturday played a documentary showing alleged rioters confessing that they were taking orders from the Mujahedin Khalq organization, a Paris-based opposition group. Authorities have cracked down hard on anyone associated with the outlawed group, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Crack in support
At least one crack appeared in Mousavi’s support. The Combatant Clergy Assn., a reformist clerical group, withdrew its endorsement of Saturday’s planned march before it began.
Analysts noted that a major backer of Mousavi, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had quieted down, especially after Khamenei publicly chastised his rival Ahmadinejad for accusing him of corruption. But he may not have decided to abandon the budding opposition movement yet.
“Rafsanjani has shown in the past to be an extremely astute and clever politician,” said Mohsen M. Milani, an Iran expert who chairs the department of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida. “He is waiting, I think, to see where is the center of gravity in these unfolding events, and then he will decide where to go.”
Khamenei praised Mousavi in his Friday sermon, a subtle invitation to come quietly back into the fold.
However, news agencies reported that Mousavi showed up at a location near the protest Saturday and told supporters to stage a nationwide strike if he was arrested.
Among other things, his letter to the Guardian Council alleges that mobile voting centers had little oversight. Many polling centers closed earlier than expected, forcing people to go home without casting their ballots, and others lacked monitors from the Mousavi camp.
He alleges that the ballot boxes were handed over to military commanders, away from the eyes of any monitors.
Even though Khamenei declared the election over and Ahmadinejad the winner, the Guardian Council has said that it is ready to recount 10% of the ballots randomly in the presence of the three defeated candidates.
Still, the lines have been drawn. By siding with Ahmadinejad, Khamenei made it clear that any more agitation is a direct challenge to him and the security forces he commands.
Mousavi “and the entire opposition now have to ultimately decide whether they are willing to confront the security forces or not,” Milani said. “Because Khamenei has made up his mind.”
Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, Christi Parsons in Washington and Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles and special correspondents in Tehran contributed to this report.