Iran continued its crackdown on protesters arresting 70 university professors after they met embattled opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, but he vowed to persevere with his election challenge today.
In the latest sign of government attempts to silence dissent, the professors were held yesterday after meeting Mr Mousavi, who has said the election which returned president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was massively rigged.
Since Saturday, demonstrators challenging the election results have found themselves increasingly struggling under a blanket crackdown by government authorities.
State media reported today that in addition to the 17 protesters killed in the recent unrest, eight members of the pro-government Basij militia were killed and dozens more wounded by weapons and knives.
A march by another opposition figure, reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi, was postponed for lack of a permit, a day after club-wielding security forces dispersed a small group of protesters outside Iran’s parliament.
Mr Mousavi, who last led a massive protest rally a week ago, described his growing difficulties for the first time.
He said authorities were increasingly isolating and vilifying him to try to get him to withdraw his election challenge, but he added he would not back down.
“I am not ready to withdraw from demanding the rights of the Iranian people,” he said, adding that he was determined to prove electoral fraud and that those behind it were “the main factor for the recent violence and unrest and have spilled the blood of the people.”
The final ballot was 62.6% of the vote for Ahmadinejad and 33.75% for Mr Mousavi, a lopsided victory in a race that was perceived to be much closer.
Mr Mousavi also defended himself and his movement, identified by the colour green, against the barrage of claims on state media about foreign hands behind the unrest. “The green movement is not dependent on foreigners,” he said.
The 70 professors he met yesterday were among a group pushing for a more liberal form of government.
Mr Mousavi’s comments came as Ahmadinejad reiterated complaints about foreign interference, singling out President Barack Obama and comparing him to former President George Bush.
“We expect nothing from the British government and other Europeans governments, whose records and backgrounds are known to everybody and who have no dignity, but I wonder why Mr Obama, who has come with the slogan of change, has fallen into this trap, the same route that Mr Bush took and experienced its ending,” Ahmadinejad said.
Before the election, the Obama administration had indicated it was interested in reaching out to Iran after years of a diplomatic freeze following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran has given no clear signal it is interested in Obama’s overture. In the wake of the vote, Obama has used increasingly harsh language to discuss Iran, saying he was “appalled” by the crackdown.
Ahmadinejad, who is to be sworn in for a second four-year term by August, warned that there would be “nothing left to talk about” if Mr Obama kept up such a tone. “This will not have any result, except that the people will consider you similar to Bush,” he said.
The comments by both presidents could complicate any attempt at a dialogue, which Washington hopes will include talks on the scope of Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad’s standing at home appears to have suffered since the election. Several Tehran newspapers reported that 185 out of 290 members of parliament, including Speaker Ali Larijani, stayed away from a victory celebration for him.
Ahmadinejad’s patron, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said the election result would not be reversed.
The fallout may leave Khamenei and the ruling theocracy battered by once-unthinkable defiance of their leadership. But they still control the Revolutionary Guard and its vast network of volunteer militias that watch every corner of Iran.
The Guard – sworn to defend the Islamic system at all costs – has been steadily expanding its authority for years to include critical portfolios such as Iran’s missile programme, its oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure, and some oversight of the nuclear programme.
Iran’s most senior dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, warned the authorities that trying to snuff out dissent would prove futile.
If people are not allowed to voice their demands in peaceful gatherings, it “could destroy the foundation of any government,” regardless of its power, he said.