, TEHRAN, Jun 13 – Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a crushing victory in Iran’s hotly-disputed presidential vote, according to official results on Saturday that triggered mass opposition protests.
Riot police were out in Tehran as thousands of supporters of his defeated rival Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets shouting "Down with the Dictator" after final results showed Ahmadinejad winning almost 63 percent of the vote.
The moderate ex-premier Mousavi cried foul over election irregularities and warned of the "dangerous scenario" the vote had created, as some of his protesting supporters were beaten by baton-wielding police, an AFP correspondent said.
The interior minister said Mousavi had won less than 34 percent of the vote, giving Ahmadinejad another four-year term in a result that dashed Western hopes of change in the Islamic republic.
Mousavi, one of Ahmadinejad’s three rivals in the most heated election campaign since the Islamic revolution, had earlier declared himself the victor, setting the scene for a tense power struggle.
The international community has been keenly watching the election for any signs of a shift in policy after four years of hardline rhetoric from the 52-year-old Ahmadinejad and a standoff over Iran’s nuclear drive.
Mousavi said he "protested vigorously against the numerous and blatant irregularities" in the vote which officials said attracted a record turnout of around 85 percent of the 46.2 million electorate.
In the heart of Tehran, thousands of angry Mousavi supporters voiced their disbelief and frustration at the results, with some pelting stones at police who struck back with batons.
The vote has unscored a grass-roots movement for change after 30 years of restrictive clerical rule in a country where 60 percent of the population was born after the revolution.
Reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who came a distant fourth with less than one percent of the vote after ex-Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai in third, also declared the result "illegitimate and unacceptable".
"They have ruined the country and they want to ruin it more over the next four years," shouted an irate mob outside Mousavi’s office.
But Iran’s all-powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed Ahmadinejad’s victory as a "feast."
"The enemies may want to spoil the sweetness of this event… with some kind of ill-intentioned provocations," he said. "The president elect is the president of the entire Iranian nation and… all should support and help him."
Mousavi had been hoping for a political comeback on a groundswell of support among the nation’s youth, with pledges to ease restrictions particularly on women, and fix Iran’s ailing economy.
Earlier, Ahmadinejad’s supporters had taken to the streets in triumph, honking their horns and waving Iranian flags.
"I am happy that my candidate has won — he helps the poor and he catches the thieves," said sandwich seller Kamra Mohammadi, 22.
The election highlighted deep divisions in Iran after four years under Ahmadinejad, who had massive support in the rural heartland, while in the big cities young men and women threw their weight behind Mousavi.
The elite Revolutionary Guards had warned of a crackdown on any "velvet revolution" by supporters of the 67-year-old who was prime minister during the war with neighbouring Iraq in the 1980s.
Iran has long been at loggerheads with the West as Ahmadinejad delivered a succession of fiery tirades against Israel, repeatedly questioned the Holocaust and vowed to press on with nuclear work despite UN sanctions, denying allegations Tehran was seeking the atomic bomb.
"The results of the election show, now more than ever, how much stronger the Iranian threat has become," said Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon.
Passions ran high during the campaign, with Ahmadinejad and his challengers hurling insults at each other in acrimonious live television debates while their supporters staged massive carnival-like rallies.
Ahmadinejad, portraying himself as a man of the people, pledged to stamp out corruption and help the poor — while his rivals accused him of mismanaging the economy of one of the world’s top oil producers and damaging the nation’s international standing.
US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties, said he saw the "possibility of change" in relations with the regional Shiite powerhouse.
"Whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there’s been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways," Obama said.
Even if Mousavi had won, it was doubtful there would be any major shift in Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy as all decisions on matters of state rest with Khamenei who has been in the nation’s top job for 20 years.
The economy was also a key issue, with Iran battling rampant inflation, rising unemployment and plunging income from crude oil exports.