REUTERS - Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday as the rightful winner of a presidential election that has sparked the biggest street protests in the Islamic Republic’s history.
In his first address to the nation since the upheaval began, Khamenei demanded an end to the demonstrations and denied any possibility that the poll a week ago had been rigged, as Ahmadinejad’s opponents have asserted.
“The result of the election comes from the ballot box, not from the street,” he told tens of thousands of worshippers who had gathered in and around Tehran University for Friday prayers. “Today the Iranian nation needs calm.”
He said Iran’s enemies were targeting the legitimacy of the Islamic establishment by disputing the outcome of the election.
The protests by supporters of Mirhossein Mousavi, runner-up in the poll, are the largest and most widespread since the revolution in Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, which is also at odds with the West over its nuclear programme.
Khamenei said politicians should shun extremism and would be responsible for any bloodshed due to “extremist behaviour”, adding that street protests would not pressure the establishment into accepting “illegal demands” of losing candidates.
Mousavi has called for the election result to be annulled.
The supreme leader, Iran’s ultimate authority, in theory stands above the factional fray, but Khamenei acknowledged that his views on foreign and domestic policy were closer to those of Ahmadinejad than to those of the hardline president’s foes.
People chanting slogans and holding posters of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the father of the 1979 Islamic revolution, packed streets outside the university.
At least one police helicopter hovered overhead.
“Ahmadinejad has been our president for four years, and during this time he has always told the truth to our people,” said Javid Abbasirad, 48, outside the university gates.
At the same venue, hundreds of university students had demonstrated in support of Mousavi on Sunday, hurling stones at riot police trying to disperse protesters outside the gates.
Some in the crowd for Friday prayers were draped in Iranian flags. Others held placards with anti-Western slogans.
“Don’t let the history of Iran be written with the pen of foreigners,” one flyer said, reflecting official Iranian anger at international criticism of the post-election violence.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has muted its comments to keep the door ajar for possible dialogue.
A group of clerics and citizens left the holy city of Qom for a 150 km (100 mile) walk to Tehran in a show of support for Khamenei, state radio and television reported.
Khamenei’s speech followed six days of protests by Mousavi supporters. On Thursday, tens of thousands of black-clad marchers bore candles to mourn those killed in earlier rallies.
Iranian state media has reported seven or eight people killed in protests since the election results were published on June 13. Scores of reformists have been arrested and authorities have cracked down on both foreign and domestic media.