Iran's supreme religious leader threw his weight behind the disputed landslide victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday, calling the vote "God's blessing," ruling out any fraud, and ordering an end to massive street protests.
In what may prove a pivotal point in the post-election crisis that has shaken Iran for nearly a week, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei took an uncompromising stand at Friday prayers.
"If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible," declared Ayatollah Khomeini, speaking to an overflowing crowd of tens of thousands at Tehran University that was bolstered by a large contingent of basiji ideological militiamen.
Defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has brought hundreds of thousands of Iranians onto the streets for peaceful protest in recent days, harnessing public outrage that first burst into riots and clashes when results were announced last Saturday.
Another march is slated for this Saturday, though it has already been declared illegal by authorities – as have each of the previous rallies. But now all future marches will be higher stakes and held in direct defiance of Iran's most powerful authority.
"This was expected. All these activities of last week, the restrictions and repressive measures, all point to one thing: no compromise, to an iron fist," says a political analyst in Tehran who could not be named for security reasons.
He said there was still much horn-honking on the streets of Tehran, and travelers on the road west of the capital were showing green – Mousavi's campaign color – and flashing victory signs.
"These are small signs, but it means that many people express a willingness to keep it up," says the analyst.
But Khamenei's message was very clear about consequences, he said: "Especially his last few words, when he became very emotional and talked about his disabled body, and whatever credit and dignity he has, he is ready to offer it to the revolution and Islam – it's something like an unannounced war.
"One thing is sure, it is like a warning – a threat," the analyst continues. "The obvious thing is to expect the motorbikers to be out there to punish people and send them home – unless Mousavi comes up with something different. He has mentioned [before] he will have a sit-in protest in [1979 revolution leader Imam] Khomeini's shrine – which would not be a street demonstration."
Protesters are 'enemies'
Khamenei praised all four candidates as men he knew, often for decades, who were each committed to the Islamic system he leads, which came to power by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But he accused the protesters – who have so far been careful to limit their demands to annulling the official results – of being enemies trying to topple the regime, and subject to "espionage machines working for Zionists and the Americans." Khamenei also had harsh words for the British, whom he labeled "the most treacherous" Western power.
The supreme leader's sharp labeling of the protesters could open the way for a much fiercer crackdown by Iran's array of security forces if protests continue. Khamenei warned the political elite that if they wanted to "break the law," they should "see the enemy working. They should see the hungry wolves. I suggest they open their eyes and see the enemy."
"What are we going to do now? Go out and get killed?" asked an observer in Tehran sympathetic to the Mousavi camp after hearing Khameini. "He gave a clear green light to the thugs of the basiji to kill, and the responsibility is on our shoulders."
"We have all lost trust and hope in the [Islamic] system," says the observer. "He knows how dangerous that is. He said it in the sermon."
No 'doubtful victory'
Khamenei said that "enemies" had tried to depict Iran's "definitive victory as a doubtful victory" by leveling charges of fraud. But the near 85 percent turnout, he said, was a resounding vote for Iran's Islamic system of government that was now "recorded in history."
Forty million Iranians voted, and "this might be considered as worship for many of these people," said Khamenei. "People should know: the Islamic establishment will never manipulate people's votes and commit treason."
Mr. Mousavi and the other two defeated candidates say the result is in doubt, because of the unprecedented speed of the count, the lack of independent oversight locally, the lack of published local results – which are typically made public – and by the extraordinary 11 million-vote gap that gave a 2-to-1 victory for the controversial Mr. Ahmadinejad over Mousavi.
Instead of a reason for doubt, said Khamenei, that gap was a reason to believe the result.
"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?" he asked.
"Some may imagine that street action will create political leverage against the system and force the authorities to give into threats," Khamenei said. "No, this is wrong."
Clerics to meet defeated candidates
The Guardian Council, a 12-member body of clerics, is examining 646 complaints of irregularities, and will meet defeated candidates on Saturday. But the supreme leader made clear the result would not change. Though normally above politics, the leader gave unequivocal support to Ahmadinejad.
Speaking of all four candidates, Khamenei said: "They have differences of opinion on foreign affairs, on how to implement social justice. And they have differences of opinion on some social issues. But I believe the views of the president is closer to what it should be."
The man who has the ultimate say on all key issues in Iran also complained about the Western leaders and media interfering in Iran's affairs. He mischaracterized President Barack Obama's low-profile statements, perhaps signaling that Mr. Obama's recent overtures are not likely to be reciprocated for awhile.
Obama said, "We were waiting to see people on the streets," Khamenei asserted. Noting that Obama had also sent a message about "respect" and "wanting ties," Khamenei asked: "Which should we believe?"