, TEHRAN, Jun 17 – Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and defeated challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi staged rival rallies as Iran grappled with its worst crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The authorities imposed a clampdown on foreign media, while the supreme leader said he favoured a partial recount of Friday’s votes, which returned Ahmadinejad to power amid opposition claims of vote-rigging.
State television showed massive crowds of flag-waving demonstrators packing a square in Tehran at a regime-organised rally, and similar scenes from a march by Mousavi supporters.
Pro-regime organisers said in a statement on Press TV that "enemies, particularly the US, Britain, and Israel" were "interfering in Iran’s internal affairs, plotting against the government and giving media support to enemy groups, rioters and social and political hooligans who are trying to fuel chaos in the Islamic Republic."
Iran is facing an international backlash over the election and subsequent crackdown on the opposition, with seven people so far reported killed in unrest in Tehran.
US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran over its contested nuclear drive, raised "deep concerns" over the election but said he would not meddle in the country’s internal affairs.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy was blunt. In the strongest remarks so far by a Western leader, he said there was "fraud,"
Iran responded to criticism by summoning EU envoys.
Tuesday’s rallies were the latest shows of strength by the rival camps in the fourth day of protests over the election that has exposed deep divisions in the oil-rich nation of 71 million people, mostly Shiite Muslims.
State television called the regime-backed demonstration a "unifying rally," showing images of vast crowds waving flags and banners.
Mousavi had urged his supporters not to turn up for their own rally in a bid to avoid clashes, but a correspondent with English-language Press TV said it had turned into a "massive" demonstration.
AFP could not reach the demonstrations, because the authorities have banned foreign media organisations from covering such events.
"Hereby we inform all foreign media representatives to avoid any news coverage which has not been coordinated or authorised by this bureau," a culture ministry official said.
In effect, foreign journalists were being confined to their bureaus and barred from the streets for what a government source said was designed for their own protection.
The authorities have warned they would nip in the bud any "velvet revolution" and have rounded up scores of people in Tehran and other cities, including prominent reformists close to former president Mohammad Khatami.
A founding member of Iran’s Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi’s human rights group was also arrested on Tuesday, a colleague told AFP.
Some phone, texting and Internet services have also been disrupted, and protestors have been turning to Twitter to spread word of the dramatic events.
A US official said Washington asked Twitter to delay maintenance plans so Iranians could still communicate when other media were banned.
In an apparent move to ease the crisis, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ordered election supervisory body the Guardians Council to probe the vote-rigging claims, endorsed a partial recount if required.
"I am asking the Guardians council and the interior ministry to examine the said issues so there is no doubt left," he was quote by state television as saying.
"If the examination of the problems require recounting of some ballot boxes, it should be definitely done in the presence of the representatives of candiates so that everybody is assured."
However, some top opposition figures were insisting on a new election, not a recount.
Top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a one-time heir to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was later sidelined, called on the youth of the "oppressed nation" to pursue peaceful rallies.
And parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a conservative rival to Ahmadinejad, blamed the interior minister for attacks on civilians and university students.
State radio said violence flared on Monday with seven people killed and more wounded in street battles outside a Basij Islamic militia base after a pro-Mousavi demonstration, as protestors set tyres and motorcycles ablaze.
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad himself was in Russia, which is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant, for a security summit. Moscow has described the election as an "internal" affair.
In his latest salvo at the West, Ahmadinejad said the "age of empires" was over, but made no mention of the situation back home.
Obama, who has turned his back on the Iran policy of predecessor George W. Bush, took a cautious line on Tuesday.
"I have said before that I have deep concerns about the election. I think that the world has deep concerns about the election," Obama said.
But "it is not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling — the US president meddling in Iranian elections."
Obama said the United States would need to pusue "tough diplomacy" towards Iran whatever the result of its electoral tumult.
"Either way we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and has been pursuing nuclear weapons," Obama told CNBC.
"Either way, it’s important for the United States to engage in the tough diplomacy around those permanent security concerns that we have — nuclear weapons, funding of terrorism.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called for the will of the Iranian people to be "fully respected."
European governments complained about the tactics used against protesters and expressed concern over the election outcome, with the European Union urging Tehran to launch a probe.
Britain said the world should not take sides but Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the authorities to refrain from violence.
"The elections are a matter for the Iranian people, but if there are serious questions that are now being asked about the conduct of the elections, they have got to be answered," he said.
Iran summoned the Czech and other European envoys to Tehran in protest at reaction to the vote.
"Neither the European Union nor other countries are in a position to have the right to make rude and interfering remarks against Iran, especially about our glorious election," the Czech envoy was told.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of European cities Tuesday in support of Iran’s defeated presidential challenger, including in Athens, Copenhagen, Hamburg and London.