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West renews warnings as Ayatollah demands end to protests

Video by Catherine VIETTE , KARINA CHABOUR

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2009-06-20

Western countries have issued new warnings to Tehran over its response to street protests against disputed election results, after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voiced an unbending demand for a halt to demonstrations.

A flurry of international concern broke out after Friday’s sermon by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he defended hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the rightful winner of Iran’s disputed presidential election and voiced an unbending demand for a halt to street protests. In so doing, Khamenei placed himself at the top of a power struggle that may yet intensify.


Khamenei told tens of thousands of people in Tehran Friday: "Top diplomats of several Western countries who talked to us so far within diplomatic formalities are showing their real face and most of all, the British government."

Britain condemned his comments as "unacceptable", while other world powers issued new warnings to Tehran over its response to protests against the election results.

Diplomatic strains showed in Brussels, where a European Union summit called on Iran not to use violence against demonstrators protesting peacefully.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on Iran not to "go beyond the point of no return”, while US President Barack Obama continued to face criticism from Republicans for not giving strong enough support to the demonstrators.

Obama has stressed that universal rights to protest peacefully should be respected in Iran, but has cautioned that US "meddling" in Iran's internal politics would be counterproductive, and vowed to push forward his engagement policy with Iran.

Khamenei rejects opposition’s 'illegal demands'

The reactions came just hours after Khamenei gave his first address to the nation since the upheaval began, speaking out against those who question the legitimacy of last week’s election that gave Ahmadinejad a big margin over moderate challenger and runner-up Mirhossein Mousavi.

“The result of the election comes from the ballot box, not from the street,” the black-turbaned, white-bearded cleric, aged 69, told tens of thousands of worshippers who had gathered in and around Tehran University for Friday prayers. “Today the Iranian nation needs calm.”

“If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible,” Khamenei continued, adding that street protests would not pressure the establishment into accepting the “illegal demands” of losing candidates.

The demonstrations of the past week are the largest and most widespread since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, which is also at odds with the West over its nuclear programme.

Many Iranians had been looking to Khamenei’s sermon for indication of the authorities’ readiness – or lack thereof – to offer concessions to the opposition. But Khamenei’s words only reinforced his initial endorsement of the election results, doing little to suggest an exit to the crisis mounting between Iranian authorities and reformists.

Khamenei is Iran’s ultimate authority and theoretically stands above the factional fray, but he acknowledged that his views on foreign and domestic policy were closer to those of Ahmadinejad than to those of the president’s foes and critics.

Youth and Western powers singled out

He also made a special appeal to Iran’s youth – a large portion of which has supported Mousavi and the opposition protests – to remain grounded in spirituality.

“He now observes that youth are part of a new kind of people power, one that this time could actually be a threat to him,” explains FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Armen Georgian. “Hence this was a moment to praise the youth of Iran, to say that they were still imbued with the original ideals of that ‘79 revolution and that they made Iran proud.”

But Khamenei turned scolding when talking about young people who stray from religion, noting that they often “don’t know what to do.”

Khamenei also accused Western powers of targeting the legitimacy of the Islamic establishment by disputing the outcome of the election. Britain was singled out for particular criticism: "Today, top diplomats of several Western countries who talked to us so far within diplomatic formalities are showing their real face and most of all, the British government."

But Khamenei’s main message seemed to be for the protesters that have been taking to the streets the last six days. FRANCE 24's Armen Georgian says that the veiled warning in Khamenei’s speech was essentially that “If you [protesters] go on like this, you might eventually become the enemies inside, and the street is not a place to resolve these problems surrounding the election.”

Khamenei’s proclaimed support for Ahmadinejad indeed gives a stark choice to the opposition, which includes many pillars of Iran’s clerical and political elite: give up the protests or face consequences imposed by the security and judicial apparatus.

Khamenei’s arbiter status ‘dented’

To enforce his writ, Khamenei can call on the elite Revolutionary Guard, the religious basij militia and other forces, but analysts said there would be a political cost. “All it does is put the leader right in the middle of the fray,” Iran analyst Ali Ansari of St Andrews University told Reuters.

“For someone calling for national calm, he will have simply reinforced the polarities in the country,” Ansari added.

Khamenei, chosen to succeed Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when he died in 1989, controls the armed forces and has the final word in all matters of state, including nuclear policy and relations with the United States.

But the explosive events of the past week may have dented his standing as the final arbiter.

“Khamenei standing above the fray is out of the window now. Whatever he does, he will have to take sides,” Mehrdad Khonsari, an exiled Iranian opposition activist in London, told Reuters.

With his own authority at stake, Khamenei may feel compelled to suppress the widespread anti-government protests, even if it means confronting Mousavi’s broad coalition of moderate and conservative leaders.

Though the opposition had vowed to stage new protests on Saturday, Mousavi, who has called for the election result to be annulled, is not calling on his supporters to participate in demonstrations, an ally who declined to be named told Reuters on Friday.

Date created : 2009-06-19