President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began to consolidate his controversial reelection victory on Sunday, as violent protests wracked Tehran for a second day and the defeated challenger called for results to be annulled.
As street clashes picked up after dark between riot police and supporters of Mir Hussein Mousavi – the former prime minister who won just half the votes of Ahmadinejad, according to official figures – a new protest began to gather pace.
Iranians from the street – and then an increasing number from the windows and rooftops of their apartment buildings – shouted "God is Great!" and "Death to the dictator!" long into the night.
That protest signified the depth of anger over the surprise election result. The same tactic was used in Iran 30 years ago to show popular displeasure with the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"It's all spontaneous, and that's a negative, [because] all things without a leader will go down," said a veteran analyst after a walk on the streets. Mr. Mousavi has not appeared in public since voting day on Friday, though in a Web statement on Sunday he said: "I urge you, Iranian nation, to continue your nationwide protests in a peaceful and legal way."
Regime moves quickly to quell unrest
The regime's swift effort to declare Mr. Ahmadinejad the victor, with the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei accepting the results as "divine" after one day instead of the customary three, means they "want to wrap it up quickly," says the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
"People talk about a coup d'etat," said a Tehran engineer of the result. "If [Ahmadinejad] really won the vote, why are there so many riots? Why are there so many riot police? Why are they on such a high alert?"
Yet Ahmadinejad said on Sunday the result was unassailable. "Nearly 40 million people took part in a totally free election," which he called a the "most glorious voting in recent history."
Iranians, he said, had been subjected to "extensive psychological warfare" by foreign media, who mistook the mass outpouring of support for the moderate Mousavi in the streets before the vote as a sign that Ahmadinejad would lose — a result predicted by a number of polls, including reportedly a secret one conducted by the government.
Ahmadinejad: protests 'not important'
Ahmadinejad said Iranians were not fooled, and the "epic achievement" of the vote "delivered a mighty blow" against the West.
He dismissed the post-election violence that erupted across Tehran with burning barricades and beatings by security forces as "not important" and said the "government will be patient.
"Some believed they would win, and then they got angry," Ahmadinejad said. "It has no legal credibility. It is like the passions after a football match.... The margin between my votes and the others is too much and no one can question it."
But many Iranians did question the unlikely result, beginning Saturday afternoon when it was declared. Among the surprises: Mousavi lost to Ahmadinejad in his hometown and ethnic Azeri heartland; reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi lost in his ethnic Lur home province and scored only a minuscule number of votes nationwide; and Ahmadinejad won Tehran and many other urban centers, where he has long been considered to have less support than rural areas.
Still, the complaints by Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi about the result "has not been very strong," says the analyst. "There have been no documents, no details. They said cancel the election, but based on what?"
"Don't worry about us," Ahmadinejad said on Sunday, chastising a British journalist during the press conference for doubting the outcome. "Freedom prevails absolutely in our country – whatever they want, they say."
Opposition politicians detained during night of clashes
A number of top reformist allies of Mousavi were detained Saturday night, including the brother of former President Mohamad Khatami, who was briefly held. Police denied that Mousavi was under house arrest.
The declared Ahmadinejad landslide prompted rioting and clashes on Saturday until the early hours of the morning. The activity left a swath of destruction from central to north Tehran along Vali Asr Avenue and in numerous districts, both east and west.
A drive along those routes at 3 a.m. Sunday found protesters mostly gone, but roads covered with shards of broken glass from state banks and bus stops, the acrid smell of still burning tires and garbage dumpsters, and the charred remains of motorcycles of security forces who had been caught and beaten by the protestors.
Riot police dressed in camouflage suits and form-fitted chest, knee, and shin guards stood in tight clusters at the Parkway intersection to north Tehran, wreathed in smoke even as municipal workers began to sweep away the mess.
Passing two men in un-tucked beige shirts on motorbikes, a driver complained about the basiji, an ideological militia force, which was out in numbers with uniformed police for two days straight, and has been, along with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, a key beneficiary of Ahmadinejad's rule.
"They are basiji," said the driver. "Mr. Ahmadinejad pays them a lot of money."
Iranians spoke of security forces of all types – official and vigilante – beating Mousavi supporters, taking license plates, or breaking the rear-view mirrors off cars that honked their horns for Mousavi.
On one side street next to Mousavi's shut-down campaign headquarters, smears of dried blood marked a wall and the sidewalk, where the injured person had bled profusely.
By the time Ahmadinejad addressed tens of thousands of supporters at dusk on Sunday at Vali Asr Square – one focal point of the pre-election Mousavi street parties, and since then a center of the street clashes – many of the windows at state banks had been repaired, the shards of glass swept away, the evidence of unrest erased.
Police sealed off streets in all directions, and the outer perimeter was patrolled by motorized riot squads. Even as vehicles organized by the presidency to carry photographers to the rally passed by, a phalanx of these racing stormtroopers – riding two to a motorbike, with the passenger carrying a baton to beat those trying to run away – charged a group of youths, chasing them down in the street.
Another group of basiji bikes, driven by men with beige shirts who had stuck an assortment of batons and truncheons into their handlebars for ready access, stopped even the presidential truck and accused journalists of sneaking photographs of them.
Picture perfect Ahmadinejad rally
Inside the security cordon, the rally was picture perfect. Supporters of the hardline president took complete control of this contested area early in the evening. Waving Iranian flags and pictures of Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic's revolutionary icons, the crowd crushed into the restraining bars, some shedding tears at the presence of their hero.
Most women were dressed in conservative black, but there were a number of Western-looking women as well, who most often support Mousavi and his more liberal social policies.
Ahmadinejad told the crowd that he had just asked the Guardian Council, which can adjudicate electoral issues, if they had received any complaints about the conduct of the vote, and they told him no.
"[Some people] say the vote is disrupted, there has been a fraud," he said. "Where are the irregularities in the election?"
Earlier in the day, Moussavi announced that he had formally requested the Guardian Council to "cancel the results of the election."
State television showed footage of the rally throughout the evening with heroic inspirational music. Images of Ahmadinejad looking leader-like turned the large event into a massive show of support that was beamed nationwide.
The images gave an image of calm adoration, and of a huge turnout every bit as "epic" as Iran's high voter turnout last Friday was. After the rally, loyalists fanned out in every direction, easily dominating the streets in the area.
But within hours, Mousavi supporters were back in numbers, honking their horns, and chanting "Alahu Akbar!"