, TEHRAN, Jun 26 – Iran’s electoral watchdog insisted on Friday that this month’s disputed presidential vote was the cleanest ever, rejecting opposition allegations of fraud that have brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets.
The Group of Eight leading powers called on Iran to put a halt to post-election violence and resolve the crisis "soon" but pointedly did not condemn the Islamic regime at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Italy.
"After 10 days of examination, we did not see any major irregularities," Guardians Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai told the official IRNA news agency.
"We have had no fraud in any presidential election and this one was the cleanest election we have had. I can say with certainty that there was no fraud in this election."
Two weeks after the vote, protests in Tehran over hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election have receded after the authorities responded to the worst crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution with a fierce crackdown that has intensified despite a chorus of international criticism.
State-run English-language Press TV said on Thursday that 20 people have been killed in the protests, including eight members of Irans Basij militia. Other state media have reported that 17 civilians have been killed.
"We want violence to stop immediately," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told a news conference after releasing a carefully worded G8 declaration which refrained from calling into question the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
"We express our solidarity with the victims," Frattini said, but added that on Iran’s contentious nuclear programme, "the door of dialogue must remain open."
G8 member Russia had warned against isolating Iran with a toughly worded condemnation, arguing that it could trigger a backlash from Tehran that would jeopardise dialogue on the nuclear issue.
However, the ministers served notice to Iran to end its crackdown on street protests, arrests of opposition members and severe restrictions on media coverage.
But in a nationally broadcast sermon at the main weekly Muslim prayers in Tehran, hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami called on the government to impose even tighter controls on the foreign media.
"How can they be allowed to wander round the country with their satellite phones giving information that provokes people to take to the streets," he asked.
US senators bluntly charged on Thursday that the June 12 election was rigged and vowed to help the opposition defeat curbs on news and the social networking Internet sites it has used to organise demonstrations.
But since an address to the nation last week by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he warned that the defeated candidates would be held responsible for any "blood, violence and chaos" on the streets of Tehran, the protests have nearly stopped.
On Wednesday, an attempt by a few hundred demonstrators to gather near parliament was quashed by police and militiamen, witnesses told AFP.
Despite the restrictions on the foreign media, images of police brutality have still spread worldwide via amateur video over the Internet. One clip in particular of the fatal shooting of young woman demonstrator Neda Agah-Soltan has come to symbolise the regime’s iron-fisted response to the protests.
Arash Hejazi, a doctor who tried to save her, told the BBC the shooter was identified by the crowd as a Basij militiaman.
Hejazi, who was near Neda at that time of her death earlier this week, said: "We heard a gunshot. And Neda was standing one metre (yard) away from me … We were just standing and all of a sudden I turned back and I saw blood gushing out of Neda’s chest," adding she died in "less than a minute."
Although the street protests have died down, Iran’s rulers are still facing a major crisis, with cracks emerging within the regime itself.
Dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri — once the designated successor to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — warned Iran’s rulers on Thursday that their suppression of opposition protests could threaten the very foundations of the Islamic republic.
Conservative parliament speaker Ali Larijani and more than 100 MPs meanwhile boycotted a victory dinner hosted by Ahmadinejad, press reports said.
And on Friday defeated conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai charged that the events of the past fortnight had damaged the authority of the Islamic regime.
"More important than the elections, people’s lives and property and the credibility of the Islamic republic have been damaged in recent weeks and we must act to stop that," said Rezai, a former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards.