, TEHRAN, Jun 19 – Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made his first public appearance after a week of unrest that has unnerved the regime, giving the sermon at the main weekly prayers.
His address to the faithful, that was broadcast live across the nation, came after opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi told the latest mass protest by his supporters on Thursday that their gripe was only with the results of last week’s presidential election, not the regime itself.
Members of Iran’s Islamic Basij militia, who have played a leading role in facing down public protests over official poll results giving hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinjad a new four-year term, were expected to attend the Tehran prayers in strength.
Khamenei has said he is ready to consider a partial recount of the ballots after all of three of Ahmadinejad’s defeated challengers lodged complaints of vote-rigging but he has strongly hinted at his support for the incumbent.
Mousavi has insisted that the poll outcome was a "shameful fraud" and made clear he wants the results annulled and the election re-run.
Keeping up the pressure on the regime over the vote, tens of thousands of his supporters held a new rally in Tehran on Thursday, the sixth straight day of protests in the capital.
Speaking through a loudhailer, the opposition leader told the crowd that their fight was only to get their votes back.
"We have not come for riots. We have come to see that the blood of martyrs is not wasted," Mousavi said, according to his newspaper website Kalemeh.ir.
"We will make any sacrifice to protect the system. We have come to obtain our rights. We only want our votes."
Most of Mousavi’s supporters at Thursday’s rally were dressed in black as a mark of mourning for demonstrators killed in clashes during the past week of protests, which have been banned by the authorities, witnesses said.
State radio has reported seven deaths since the disturbances started.
The Basij militia has condemned the demonstrators as "rioters" and demanded that the defeated candidates dissociate themselves from the protests.
Foreign journalists were barred from attending Thursday’s rally, as they have been from attending all other events without express authority.
The three defeated candidates – reformist former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and hardline ex-Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai as well as Mousavi – have been invited to set out their grievances before electoral watchdog, the Guardians Council, on Saturday.
The council said on Thursday that it had received 646 complaints of poll violations from the trio.
It has said it will make its decision on Sunday on any recount.
World powers have raised concern about the violence and widespread arrests, with EU leaders set later on Friday to condemn their use against protesters.
According to a draft statement, Tehran will also be urged to investigate the claims of electoral fraud.
"The European Union is observing the response to the protests across Iran with serious concern," said the statement to be agreed by the European leaders at a two-day Brussels summit.
"It strongly condemns the use of violence against protesters resulting in the deaths of several people," continues the text, seen by AFP.
In the face of the regime’s biggest crisis since the 1979 revolution overthrew the pro-Western shah, Iran’s Islamic rulers have repeatedly lashed out at "meddling" by foreign powers, particularly the United States.
On Wednesday, Iran summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents US interests in Iran, to protest against what it called "interfering remarks" by American officials.
The White House on Thursday defended President Barack Obama’s position on the crisis, amid fresh demands by opposition Republicans for him to strongly back demonstrators.
"The president believes that he’s struck the right tone as do others in the administration, as do others in the Republican Party, as do others in the Democratic Party," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Obama has warned that universal rights of peaceful protest should be honoured, but has refused to pick sides in the post-election showdown.
In a sign of cracks emerging within the Iranian elite, several influential clerics have spoken out about the election results and the subsequent crackdowns.
Ayatollah Mehdi Hadavi Tehrani called on Thursday for Interior Minister Sadeq Mahouli to be impeached.
The combative Ahmadinejad – who set Iran on a collision course with the West during his first four-year term – remained defiant, saying his victory showed faith in his government of "honesty and service to the people".