Iran hardliners keep protesters off the streets

For the first time in the nine days since the disputed election, public protests were subdued a day after state-sponsored militias and riot police used lethal fire against crowds calling for the result to be overturned, killing at least 10 people and injuring more than 100. Demonstrators had shouted “death to Khamenei” after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the protests illegal.

The campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mr Ahmadinejad’s principal rival, appeared to be losing momentum after he failed to hold a major rally at the weekend. But it was believed that he was reviewing his strategy needed to overturn the official victory recorded by the incumbent.

While Mr Mousavi had called on Saturday for a general strike in the event of his arrest, he was said to be considering such a move regardless of whether he was in detention. If it were to draw broad support, a strike would wrest back the initiative from the conservatives around the Supreme Leader and side-step the dangers posed by Ayatollah Khamenei’s injunction against protests, which was accompanied by the threat of bloodshed.

Widespread disruption to commercial life would also undermine any attempts by the leadership to claim that Iran was returning to normal.

But as Mr Mousavi’s largely stayed off the streets, hardline officials were intimidating the opposition and orchestrating a campaign of vilification against “foreign interference”. They gave the BBC’s resident Tehran correspondent John Leyne 24 hours to leave the country and arrested a Newsweek reporter, as well as issuing statements condemning Britain and other foreign powers for meddling in Iran’s affairs.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, was forced to dismiss accusations by his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki that the UK had sent squadrons of spies to Iran in a two year plot to use the election. “I reject categorically the idea that the protesters in Iran are manipulated or motivated by foreign countries,” said Mr Miliband said. “The UK is categorical that it is for the Iranian people to choose their government, and for the Iranian authorities to ensure the fairness of the result and the protection of their own people.”

Efforts to divide the opposition from a powerful figure thought to sympathise with the call for change saw the arrest of at least six members of the family of the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, including his daughter, Faezeh. She had marched in the streets with demonstrators on Saturday when the shootings were at their height.

But another former president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, issued an outspoken attack on the authority of the hardliners within the regime, challenging Ayatollah Khamenei’s declaration that an official body, the Guardian Council, was capable of reviewing election complaints and criticised arrests of those involved in the protests.

“Preventing people from expressing their demands through civil ways will have dangerous consequences,” he said. “Referring the dispute to a body which has not been impartial regarding the vote, is not a solution.”

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, meanwhile called on Iranian authorities to recount the ballots. She said: “Germany is on the side of the Iranian people, who want to exercise their rights of freedom of expression and free assembly,”

The influential speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, appeared to agree with calls for a complete recount. “A majority of the people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced,” he said. “The opinion of this majority should be respected.”

The credibility of the official result was dealt a further blow when Chatham House, the respected British think tank, published an analysis of the returns based on official figures which showed that the official turnout exceeded 100 per cent in two of Iran’s 30 provinces. It said statistical analysis also showed that the figures were likely to have been produced by a computer programme and that Mr Ahmadinejad’s tallies appeared to include almost all the votes for the most liberal candidate in the race, Mehdi Karoubi.

“In looking at the results we would say that not only would Mr Ahmadinejad have had to held on to the entire conservative vote in 2005 but there is also a higher correlation between the increase in his vote and the size of the Karoubi vote in 2005 than any other factor,” said Thomas Rintoul, an Iran analyst.