, TEHRAN, Jun 21 – Iran was on a knife-edge after opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi fired off an unprecedented criticism of the supreme leader and police clashed with thousands of defiant demonstrators.
Mousavi, who has led a massive wave of public opposition to the disputed June 12 vote that returned hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, accused the country’s rulers of "cheating" and warned of a dangerous path ahead if the crackdown on demonstrators continued.
He unleashed his broadside against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s all-powerful supreme leader, after police firing tear gas and water cannon clashed with thousands of protestors who defied an ultimatum from Khamenei for an end to their street protests.
World leaders have voiced mounting alarm over the unrest, the worst to rock Iran since the turmoil of the 1979 revolution that ousted the US-backed shah and brought an Islamic regime to power.
At least seven people have been killed, according to state media, and many more wounded, with the volunteer Islamic Basij militia at the forefront of the crackdown.
"We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people," said US President Barack Obama, who has appealed for dialogue with Tehran after three decades of severed ties.
"The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost."
Mousavi, a former prime minister who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in the presidential election, lashed out at Khamenei in an unprecedented challenge to the man who has ruled over Iran for 20 years.
In his first public appearance since the vote, Khamenei on Friday ruled out any election fraud and warned that opposition leaders would be responsible for "blood, violence and chaos" if there was no end to protests that have rocked Tehran and other cities over the past week.
But the moderate Mousavi, 67, reiterated his demand for a new election after official results showed he had lost to the incumbent by a landslide.
"If this huge volume of cheating and changing the votes… which has hurt people’s trust, is presented as the very evidence of the lack of cheating then it will butcher the republican aspect of the system and the idea that Islam is incompatible with a republic will be proven," Mousavi said.
"If the people’s trust is not matched by protecting their votes or if they are not able to defend their rights in a civil peaceful reaction, there will be dangerous ways ahead," he said in a statement on the website of his newspaper Kalameh.
At least one person was wounded when shots rang out during Saturday’s rally as demonstrators braved tear gas and water cannon to assemble in Enghelab Square in the heart of the capital, witnesses said.
The foreign media has been barred from covering such events as part of tight restrictions imposed since the unrest was unleashed last Saturday.
A suicide bomber also struck a key regime monument – the mausoleum of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in south Tehran – killing himself and wounding three people, two of them foreigners, state media reported.
"The robocops beat us up badly," one protestor told AFP. "Men and women were beaten up… My whole body is bruised."
Another witness said: "Lots of guards on motorbikes closed in on us and beat us brutally.
"As we were running away the Basiji were waiting in side alleys with batons, but people opened their doors to us trapped in alleys."
The head of Iran’s security council, Abbas Mohtaj, on Saturday delivered a specific warning to Mousavi, whose supporters have been turning out wearing scarves and headbands in green, his campaign colour.
"Your national duty tells you to refrain from provoking illegal gatherings," Mohtaj wrote. "Should you provoke and call for these illegal rallies you will be responsible for the consequences."
Since the protests began, scores of prominent political activists, including reformist leaders and former government officials, have also been rounded up by the authorities.
Khamenei, who last week ordered a probe into allegations of electoral fraud, had insisted in his Friday sermon that the margin of Ahmadinejad’s victory over Mousavi meant there had been no cheating.
Iran’s electoral watchdog, the 12-member Guardians Council, said on Saturday it was ready to randomly recount up to 10 percent of the ballot boxes from the election, state television reported.
It made its offer after meeting to study 646 complaints of poll violations lodged by the three defeated candidates – Mousavi, reformist ex-parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai.