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Iran: Reading the Supreme Leader's Politics

The Latest from Iran (17 June): Uncovering the News on Attacks, Protests, and the Supreme Leader

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KHAMENEI3I was impressed today by two provocative analyses of the politics behind the recent decisions of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Real Clear World, Meir Javedanfar evaluates "the short- and long-term aspirations of Iran's most powerful man", while in Asia Times Online, M K Bhadrakumar considers more than 20 years of manoeuvring between Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mir Hossein Mousavi.


Supreme Leader and Iran Election

Meir Javedanfar

The recent presidential elections in Iran have proven to be the most controversial since the start of the revolution. With demonstrators taking to the streets of Tehran, many are seeking to understand the cause of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial victory. To find the answer, we must look at the short- and long-term aspirations of Iran's most powerful man, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.

Since becoming Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989, Khamenei has maintained cohesion amongst different political factions through a system of checks and balances. Almost like a trapeze artist, he has survived domestic challenges and threats of foreign-backed regime change by giving each major political faction a say in a different part of the system. For example, as means of keeping the conservatives happy when the reformists won the elections in 1997 and 2001, he allowed the conservatives to run the judiciary and the media. To maintain cohesiveness when the conservatives retook power through Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, he allowed the president's chief opponent, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to run the Assembly of Experts as well the Expediency Council.

When Khamenei wanted to divest power from a group in the past, he did it in a very gradual manner. A chief example is his goal to wrestle political and economic power away from the clergy and hand it to non-religious conservatives, whom he views as being more loyal and capable of running the country. Since 2001, he has been carrying out this process, slowly and meticulously.

However, his support for Ahmadinejad before and after the elections, together with what many believe to be overwhelming election fraud that he has sanctioned, is almost out of character for Khamenei. Such moves are very sudden and extreme, unlike the punctilious way in which he has maneuvered around important issues and decisions in the past. They are also very provocative, not just for supporters of reformists, but because they are clearly efforts to isolate other powerful figures. These leaders include Rafsanjani and Karroubi, both of whom have vast business connections and are politically well-connected.

One possible reason for Khamenei's recent decision is that he realized that unless he intervened, the reformists would win the elections. What concerned the Supreme Leader even more is the fact that the clergy, both right and left, were turning against the president, and ultimately, against him. Recently, for instance, the Society For Combatant Clergies, a powerful conservative group belonging to the clergy in Qom, decided "not to support any candidate in the presidential elections." This was a politically correct way of saying that they would not support Ahmadinejad. As someone who has supported Ahmadinejad throughout his career, Khamenei took their decision as a rebuff against his own political ambitions.

A victory by the reformists, in cooperation with the clergy and Rafsanjani, would have created a powerful front against Khamenei. Instead of being loyalist soldiers like Ahmadinejad, they would have challenged his views in important areas, such as dealing with the United States. With Khamenei already viewing Obama's positive overtures as a threat, any more internal dissent would have boosted Washington's position against Iran in the negotiations.

There is also the question of Khamenei's succession. In Iran, the choice for president is not the most important political decision; the choice for the next Supreme Leader is. This is a decision which according to the country's constitution has to be made by the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body comprised of clerics whose religious rank must be at least Hojatoelslam, if not Ayatollah. In reality, however, the choice for next Supreme Leader is one which the Assembly of Experts usually rubber stamps. This is what happened when Khamenei himself was elected to the post; the decision belonged to his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khamenei would also like to exercise this choice. Otherwise, Rafsanjani, the current head of Assembly of Experts, may make this decision. As the two have been rivals for many years, Khamenei would be right to be concerned.

A coalition of reformers and clergy, with Rafsanjani's backing, could have challenged Khamenei's choice for the next Supreme Leader. This concerns Khamenei not simply as a threat to his prestige, but also to his family's welfare and political ambitions. Some analysts believe Khamenei wishes to secure his family's well-being by appointing his son Mojtaba to replace him as Supreme Leader. Khamenei has been described as "Ali of the age" more and more in the Iranian media. This is a reference to Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam who passed on the reigns to his son Hassan. It is very possible that the reason Khamenei is being referred to as the current version of Imam Ali is to prepare the ground for him to pass on power in the same manner.

Even if Mojtaba, who is considered a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator, is not appointed, Khamenei will still want someone who will protect his family's business and political interests. Otherwise, they may end up isolated like Khomeini's family.

Ensuring that Ahmadinejad continues as president and that a coalition of powerful figures and reformers does not gain power is an overwhelming concern for the Supreme Leader, which may explain his actions surrounding Iran's most controversial elections to date.

Khamenei rides a storm in a tea cup

M K Bhadrakumar

Western capitals must make a difficult choice: how long to pin hopes on the eruption of a "color" revolution in Tehran? The burden falls almost entirely on Europe, since Washington has different priorities.

The United States cannot afford to be spotted in the barricades on the frontline of any attempt to prise open the Iranian regime at this delicate point in Middle Eastern politics. Tehran will not forgive for another quarter century at least any such American folly, and the Barack Obama administration has no intentions of committing hara-kiri, either.

Within Europe, it is unclear who is spearheading the charge of the light brigade. No country seems to want to be seen up front - except the Czech Republic, which has no choice, since it currently chairs the rotating European Union presidency. But then, most European countries would probably seldom fail the chance to be Tehran's bete noire, but will, true to a pattern, swiftly fall back the moment they estimate that the law of diminishing returns is at work and continued tirades might jeopardize lucrative commercial interests in Iran.

Tens of thousands of supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi planned to keep up their street protests in Tehran on Wednesday, even though the authorities have promised a partial recount of Friday's vote that saw incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad win another four-year term.

No scope for a color revolution

Europe has no real experience in staging color revolutions. This has been the forte of the Americans - conceptualized in the post-Soviet space in Eurasia by the Bill Clinton administration and subsequently grasped by the neo-conservatives in the George W Bush team. Europeans were curious bystanders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. France to some extent might have been on the inside track over Lebanon, but then the result turned out to be a mish-mash.

At any rate, to borrow Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's famous words in a philosophical context, staging a color revolution in Tehran is not like breaking an egg. The signs are that the color revolution struggling to be born on the streets of Tehran has had a miscarriage. Ahmadinejad's participation at the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Tuesday was possible only with the tacit acquiescence of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was an important decision to take at a critical juncture. Earlier reports in the Western media speculated that Ahmadinejad might stand down in view of the developing political situation.

Evidently, the regime decided that Tehran should not in any way project an atmosphere of crisis as that would only play into the hands of the proponents of a color revolution within Iran and abroad. To quote well-known Iranian dissident Ibrahim Yazdi, "Certainly, the gap inside Iran, politically, will be widened. Our main concern is how to keep the enthusiasm that was created for the election alive, in order to monitor and constrain the power of the government. The only way to counter it is the power of the people. We need to organize them."

How is the regime coping? Clearly, Khamenei is in the driving seat and is in control of the state apparatus. He is skillfully navigating the regime through the choppy waters. Khamenei's meeting with the principal opposition candidate in the election, Mousavi, merits attention. The official statement makes out certain key points. First, Khamenei indicated unambiguously to Mousavi that the regime would not tolerate any street protests and he must therefore "channel protests through legal bodies". It now becomes extremely difficult for Mousavi to be seen as defying the Supreme Leader's diktat.

Second, Khamenei suggested that there was nothing extraordinary about the present situation, insofar as "in previous elections also, there were some people and candidates who had some problems". But they pursued the matter through the Guardians Council, which in any case has to approve the conduct of the presidential election in Iran.

Mousavi's existential choice

However, it is the third point made by Khamenei that is most crucial. He pointed a finger at the "enemies' provocative actions" as well as "certain behind-the-stage plots" which aimed to "create chaos in Iran". Khamenei then went on most meaningfully to remind Mousavi that "your [Mousavi's] character is different from such people and it is necessary that you pursue the problems through calm".

The highly personal remark had a touch of admonition, but also the hint of a fulsome invitation to reasoning that could open up doors leading into pleasant pathways along which the two interlocutors known to each other for long, after all, could take a stroll. It was a very Persian remark.

Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of their old association, when the latter served as Iran's prime minister under him and the two were not only close comrades-in-arms for the preservation of the Iranian revolution through the critical years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but also worked together to frustrate the cunning ploys of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who as the powerful speaker of the Majlis (parliament) constantly conspired to arrogate state power.

During that period, Rafsanjani constantly sniped at Mousavi and tried to undercut him, although he enjoyed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's endorsement. On numerous occasions, Rafsanjani gave him hell on the floor of the Majlis, embarrassing him when he sought parliamentary approval for his moves, whittling down his authority to execute his policy and systematically undermining his political standing in public opinion.

Rafsanjani had already begun jockeying for position in expectation of the post-Khomeini era. As Khomeini fell ill, Rafsanjani became more assertive. Mousavi, in fact, found himself identifying with the Iranian revolutionaries (like Ahmadinejad), who were appalled by Rafsanjani's suggestion to Khomeini to "drink from the chalice of poison" and order a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq war that effectively meant allowing Saddam Hussein the escape route. Those were tumultuous times when the fate of the Iranian revolution of 1979 hung by a thread.

The main sticking point was the economic policy of the Mousavi government. Rafsanjani sought a policy that catered to the Tehran bazaar, which would benefit his family members as well as large sections of the corrupt clergy, who were aligned with him. But Mousavi opted for state control of the economy and insisted he was acting in accordance with the ideals of the revolution and Khomeini's wishes. What Rafsanjani proposed during those difficult years was to have the latitude for his clan and other hangers-on to do some war profiteering. Mousavi's answer was a firm "no", and he stuck to the austere economic policy.

When the eight-year war with Iraq ended in August 1988, Rafsanjani proposed that Iran should dilute its revolutionary ideals and take Western help for reconstruction. (The Rafsanjani family initially made its fortune by exporting Iranian products such as pistachio nuts and carpets to the US.) But Mousavi firmly disagreed and refused to go against the grain of the revolution. Finally, when the levers of power were passed into his hands as president, Rafsanjani's wrath knew no bounds. Vindictive by nature, he literally drove Mousavi into political exile. The ex-prime minister summarily abandoned politics and returned to his profession of architecture and teaching.

Thus, Khamenei all but jogged Mousavi's memory at their meeting in Tehran by suggesting that the latter should not join hands with Rafsanjani against him. He suggested that Rafsanjani and his circles are simply using him as a political ladder. Khamenei virtually reminded Mousavi of his old constituency. Indeed, as prime minister (1981-89), Mousavi had an impeccable reputation as a hardliner - every bit as much as the "international community" regards Ahmadinejad today. In a memorable article penned in 1988, the Economist magazine described him as a "firm radical".

Khamenei folded up his conversation with Mousavi by "admiring" the massive turnout in Friday's election and "once again underlining its healthy and calm nature". In a subtle way, he allowed Mousavi to have a peep into his thought processes about the current situation.

Meanwhile, Khamenei has directed the Guardians Council to review the appeals about the election and to give its opinion within a week to 10 days. He also held a joint meeting with the representatives of the four candidates in the election and officials from the 12-member Guardians Council and the Interior Ministry. At the meeting, Khamenei used harsh language describing the street protesters as "vandals" for damaging state property. He told the candidates' supporters to distance themselves from the "vandals" and to support peace in the country as the election "should not cause divisions".

Khamenei added, "If the election result had been different, even then such incidents would have occurred" as "some people" are against the unity of the Iranian nation and the solidarity of the Islamic system. He offered that a partial recount of the votes in the elections could be arranged, if necessary. But he concluded by passing his own judgment, "Those in charge of supervising the elections are always trustworthy people."

Tehran rebuffs Europe

Alongside, Tehran has rebuffed European attempts to interfere. This has been done at the appropriate diplomatic level with the Foreign Ministry calling in the envoys of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Besides, a "unity rally" held in Tehran by supporters of Ahmadinejad condemned "enemies, particularly the US, Britain and Israel ... [for] interfering in Iran's internal affairs, plotting against the government and giving media support to the enemy groups, rioters and social and political hooligans who are trying to fuel chaos in the Islamic Republic".

All in all, therefore, Western capitals will take note that the hope that a color revolution might overturn Ahmadinejad's victory or in a best-case scenario lead to the toppling of the Iranian regime is far-fetched and almost fanciful. The extent of the street protests has come down in Tehran, although uncertainties remain. The hope that there would be a countrywide popular uprising seems also to be far-fetched.

If Rafsanjani's astute political temperament is any guide, he will lie very low and generally avoid being noticed for a while. Meanwhile, he will do some intense networking with his contacts in the power apparatus, putting out his extraordinary political antennae and making a careful assessment as to the scope for compromise with the powers that be and when he should make his move. He should first live to fight another day. That may require making compromises. After all, politics is the art of the possible. So, without batting an eyelid, he may turn his back on Mousavi and former president Mohammed Khatami, who were, after all, his temporary allies in the recent saga.

Will he get another chance? That is a big question. Time seems to have run out for Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly projected an "anti-corruption" drive as a major plank of his new presidency. Was that mere election rhetoric, or will he go for the Rafsanjani family, which has many skeletons in its cupboard? Everything depends on what Khamenei thinks. He may assess that this time the "Shark" went too far to plot a lethal attack that might have succeeded. Or, he might let bygones be bygones.

Rafsanjani is undoubtedly the West's favorite poster boy - and of the "pro-West" Arab authoritarian rulers in the region. The difficult choice for European capitals is how much propaganda mileage to extract at this stage before moving on. Once US-Iranian engagement begins, European companies will scramble for oil contracts. If the European Union's ill-starred Nabucco gas pipeline project has a fighting chance to materialize, that will depend primarily on gaining access to Iranian gas.

Also, European capitals will have noted that there is great reticence on the part of Middle Eastern countries to point fingers at Tehran for not practicing Western style democracy. Autocratic Arab regimes will be nervous that if the contagious disease of the color revolution were to appear in Iran, it might eventually spread on the Middle Eastern political landscape. Unsurprisingly, the lone exception has been Israel (and its media friends), which has a vested interest in scuttling US-Iran engagement and will not easily pass up an opportunity to malign Ahmadinejad.

On the other hand, three important neighbors of Iran - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan - promptly greeted Ahmadinejad, quite ahead of protocol requirements to do so. Ahmadinejad was warmly greeted at the SCO summit, too.

"Iran, Russia and China are three major economic and political poles attending the [SCO] summit ... [They] play important roles in dealing with the world's current and upcoming developments," Ahmadinejad was reported as saying in the People's Daily and it also highlighted Ahmadinejad's tirade against the "unipolar world order" in his speech. On its part, Moscow said in a structured statement, "The Iranian elections are the internal affair of Iran. We welcome the fact that elections took place, we welcome the new president on Russian soil and see it as symbolic that he made his first visit [as newly-elected president] to Russia. This allows hope for progress in bilateral relations." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev scheduled a bilateral with Ahmadinejad at Yekaterinburg.

Khamenei has made it clear in recent weeks that the Obama administration will meet a resolute interlocutor when US-Iran direct negotiations begin shortly. No amount of Western pressure tactics on the democracy plank is going to soften up Khamenei. With Ahmadinejad continuing as president for a second term, Khamenei has his chosen team in position.

The Obama administration faces difficult choices. The stir in Tehran is fast becoming a "Twitter revolution". No such thing has ever happened there, despite the best efforts of former US vice president Dick Cheney and his covert team for well over four years for triggering "regime change".

The US is sensing the potential of a "Twitter revolution" in Iran. Earlier, in Moldova, the potential of Twitter to trigger convulsions in popular moods was studied. The US State Department confirmed on Tuesday it had contacted Twitter to urge it to delay a planned upgrade that would have cut daytime service to Iranians. But a department spokesman denied that the contacts with Twitter amounted to meddling in Iran's internal affairs - US sensitivity about causing annoyance to the Iranian regime is self-evident.

At the same time, Obama has to worry that unrest in Iran may scuttle his plans to commence direct engagement with Tehran within the coming days or weeks. On the contrary, he must face the music from the influential Israel lobby in the US, which is unhappy that Washington is not pressing the pedal hard enough on a color revolution in Iran. But Obama is treading softly. He said late on Tuesday there appeared to be no policy differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. "The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised. Either way, we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States."

That's a cleverly drafted formulation. Prima facie, Obama pleases the regime in Tehran insofar as he appears "stand-offish" as to what ensues through the coming days by way of the street protests or out of the deliberations of Iran's Guardians Council. Fair enough. But, on the other hand, Obama also is smartly neutralizing any allegation that the Rafsanjani-Khatami-Mousavi phenomenon is in any way to be branded by the Iranian regime as "pro-US". Obama's remark helps the Iranian opposition to maintain that its motivations are purely driven by Iran's national interests.

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IRAN DEMO 15-06-09 22230 GMT: The end of a long and, for many, amazing day in Iran with the hopes of the mass movement balanced by rumours of deaths, beatings, and detentions (one activist writes of many people being taken to Evin Prison). Still a state of tension, with uncertainty over casualty figures from this afternoon at Azadi Square and no firm confirmation of the big march for 5 p.m. tomorrow (local time) in Tehran. Tonight, there are sounds of ambulances and police sirens and occasional gunshots.

We're going to take an overnight break. Thanks to all who have supported us and given us information today. Our thoughts are with friends and colleagues in Iran.

2100 GMT: Channel 4's Lindsey Hilsum's blog has footage of paramilitaries shooting at protestors. Her blog post is here, a larger video is available here.

1930 GMT: We have learned that Tehran's Central Bazaar will be on strike tomorrow. Tonight people are cruising in automobiles through Tehran, honking their horns, but there is also a military presence and the prospect of further attacks.

Evening Update (1915 GMT): The elation over the success of the Tehran march, with a peaceful crowd in the hundreds of thousands, has been tempered by the shooting in Azadi Square.The firing appears to have broken out near a Basiji (paramilitary militia) headquarters.

News services are still confirming only one dead, but there are very disturbing images of dead and wounded allegedly attacked at Azadi. There is also nervousness over reports of clashes in other Iranian cities.

The high hopes over the address of Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi to the Azadi crowd has been offset by a lull in political developments. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, has allowed state media to make all the noise after his letter to the Guardian Council for an enquiry into vote fraud, and President Ahmadinejad has suddenly gone noticeably (and uncharacteristically) silent.

There are reports, despite the claim by CNN's Octavia Nasr of a Khamenei-Mousavi deal for no more demonstrations (see 1535), of a march called for tomorrow at 5 p.m. local time in the main thoroughfare of Vali Asr Street.

1735 GMT: Rumours are still swirling about the shooting in Azadi Square. Some claim four demonstrators were killed with "many more" wounded; others claim that the assailant, a Basiji (unofficial "religious" police), was then beaten to death by the crowd. There is also an unconfirmed report of gunfire in three districts in north Tehran.

French media put the number at the rally at up to 2 million.

1705 GMT: Press TV reports that one demonstrator killed by gunfire in Azadi Square.

1700 GMT: An administrator for Mousavi's Facebook page explains the rationale behind the two slogans that they are promoting for the night rooftop protests as well as tomorrow's marches (possibly at Khomeini Shrine). The first is "allah-o-akbar" (God is Great) and the second "la-allah-a-ela-allah" (There is no God but God). These overtly religious slogans symbolise that there is no authority higher than God; tactically, they are not "questionable", by any standard measurement in Iran, and thus cannot easily provoke retaliation.

1625 GMT: Iranian activists claim to have hacked the news sites of the ultra-conservative Kayhan and
Rajanews, which have been vocal supporters of Ahmadinejad. As of now is still down but just about running.

1600 GMT: Another sign of Government re-alignment in the face of the demonstrations: Press TV reports Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani has appointed a committee, headed by the Deputy Speaker, to investigate "unpleasant incidents" such as the security forces' raid on the dormitories of Tehran University, and compile a "complete and impartial report". Members of the Iranian Parliament, the Majlis, who toured the dormitories have called for the release of students detained in the raids.

1535 GMT: CNN's Octavia Nasr claims on Twitter: "Deal was reached to investigate fraud allegations & Moussavi halts futher demos."

1515 GMT: In the US, leading blogger Andrew Sullivan has picked up on our analysis of how Press TV's new approach to the protests may reveal a high-level political shift, in particular in the Supreme Leader's position.

1510 GMT: CNN now leading with Iran rally, showing footage of Mousavi addressing crowd.

1500 GMT: Press TV is now clearly following a shift in the Supreme Leader's political position. Their sympathetic coverage of the rally continues, followed by a reference by Khamenei's call on the Guardian Council to review electoral results in "a meeting with Mousavi on Sunday evening" in which he encouraged the candidate "to pursue his complaints about the election through legal means".

Press TV emphasized that Khamenei "urged restraint and called on Mousavi to be careful about the enemy squad and provocation". The Supreme Leader's letter to the Guardian Council "was an effort to restore people's support and trust in their government".

The state-run outlet is even reporting on the European Union's statement of concern over the election results, as well France and Germany's summoning of Iranian Ambassadors to express their worries.

1425 GMT: Mousavi, speaking from the rooftop of a car, has addressed the rally, saying he is ready to stand in a new election. Former President Khatami has called for the election to be declared void.

CNN has caught up a bit, despite technical problems, with Christiane Amanpour reporting from the rally.

1330 GMT: Press TV is breaking into normal programmes to show live images of crowds completely filling Enqelab Square in Tehran. The studio has lost contact with the correspondent in the crowd, but the anchorman is offering a full report, noting the banners "Where is My Vote?" and the claims of opposition candidates that the election results were "rigged".

In Britain, Press TV is the only outlet broadcasting on the rally. At the moment, there is nothing on SkyNews (which has provided some updates), BBC, CNN, Fox, or even Al Jazeera.

1320 GMT: CNN reporting that Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, assured Mousavi of a fair investigation at a meeting yesterday. The Guardian Council's report is expected within 10 days, establishing a potential cooling off period. The Council is chaired by Ayatollah Jannati, a hardline conservative said to be a strong supporter of the President.

1310 GMT:  Press TV reporting that Mousavi has appeared before hundreds of thousands of supporters in Tehran.

1300 GMT: The official tally of the Presidential votes adds insult to injury for Rafsanjani. According to Jahan News, Ahmadinejad received 1122 votes in the village of Bahreman – Rafsanjani’s birthplace - while only 730 voted for Mousavi.

1250 GMT: Just to bring home the significance of the previous item, Press TV is state-owned media. Until this morning, it has given almost no attention to the protests against Ahmadinejad's election. The sudden change to in-depth, even effusive coverage of the demonstrations points to a wider political shift: whether this is in line with a "compromise" accepting the legitimacy of the claims of the protests (and, beyond that, the appeal to the Guardian Council) remains to be seen.

1235 GMT: Press TV is now reporting on "hundreds of thousands" in today's rally from Enqelab Square to Azadi Square, protesting the outcome of the Iranian election. The gathering is in defiance of the Ministry of Interior's refusal to give a permit. So far, based on video and on the correspondent's report, the rally appears to be peaceful and calm.

1120 GMT: BBC Persian report that Mousavi, Karroubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami will attend today's protest, an indication that earlier attempts to abandon the march stemmed either from confusion or Government misinformation.

1037 GMT: Chris Emery reminds us in the context of former President Rafsanjani's letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, asking for a review of the election results: a pre-election Rafsanjani letter asking for investigation of "insults to the Islamic Republic" by Ahmadinejad, was supported by more than 100 senior clerics from Qom.

This clerical opposition to Ahmadinejad should be noted as an ongoing factor in the manoeuvres amongst the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad, Mousavi-Karroubi, and Rafsanjani.

1018 GMT: Confusion over whether Mousavi headquarters have now "un-cancelled" the call for this afternoon's march, with some activists saying Mousavi and Karroubi will attend and others claiming that Mousavi's website --- which cancelled and then retracted the cancellation --- may have been taken over by people hostile to the demonstrations.

Suspicions of a "trap" have been further fuelled by reports of Government gun emplacements at Azadi Square, the endpoint of the march.

0920 GMT: A possible important turn of events. State media are reporting that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, did meet with Mir Hossein Mousavi. The Supreme Leader is now ordering an investigation of allegations of electoral fraud.

0850 GMT: Reports that this afternoon's march in Tehran will go ahead, despite refusal of permit by Ministry of Interior and possible withdrawal of support from Mousavi headquarters.

0803 GMT: The website for the Mousavi campaign has just announced the cancellation of today's march.

0800 GMT: Reuters reports, "Iran's top legislative body, the Guardian Council, said on Monday it had received two official complaints from defeated presidential candidates and would issue its ruling within 10 days." The complaints came from candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohsen Rezaei; there is no mention of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani (see 0515 GMT update).

A spokesman for the council, which must formally approve the election results for the outcome to stand, said it had received appeals from moderate former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi and former head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaie.

0745 GMT: According to CNN, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency is reporting a further endorsement by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, of the election's outcome: "Pointing to enemies' massive propaganda campaign to discourage people from taking part in the elections, Ayatollah Khamenei also said there was really a divine miracle behind this elections, given its results that was 10 million higher than any of the previous ones in the 30-year history of elections in Iran." (Note: It appears that IRNA's website is either overloaded or has crashed.)

Khamenei's statement should be seen as a response to the move by former President Rafsanjani, appealing to the Guardian Council, to void the election results (see 0515 GMT update).

0725 GMT: Twitter accounts such as Change For Iran are posting photographs of students who were reportedly beaten at Isfahan University when security forces entered dormitories.

0615 GMT: Iranian media report that the Ministry of the Interior has denied the permit for this afternoon's march.

Morning Update (0515 GMT): Two potentially important events are likely to dominate the day's developments. The first is the appeal, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani (pictured), to Iran's Guardian Council  The Guardian Council is Iran's political and legal body of last resort, and under Iranian law, it must ratify the declared election results.

There is a wider significance in Rafsanjani's appeal, however. The Guardian Council is the only authority that can remove the Supreme Leader. So this is a challenge by a former President, who has backed challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi against President Ahmadinejad, to Ayatollah Khamenei, who moved quickly to endorse Ahmadinejad's victory.

The second event occurs this afternoon at 4 p.m. local time (1130 GMT) with a march, organised by Mousavi headquarters, in Tehran. There are conflicting reports on whether the Ministry of Interior has approved the march, let alone allowed Mousavi to speak, and whether the challenger's headquarters will call for it to go ahead if it is not legally permitted.

The overnight news is mainly of individual stories of clashes and beatings. It is almost impossible, given the restrictions on media and on phone and Internet service, to get a co-ordinated view of events, especially outside Tehran. CNN, for example, has to go with an account by "an eyewitness" of the beating of a man by security forces after he tried to protect a 14-year-old girl.

Twitter is still the best channel for news, but this is fragmented and hard to verify. Indications are that some of the most serious clashes are occurring at universities in Tehran and other cities. There are rumours of numerous casualties at hospitals and of arrests of senior politicians such as former President Mohammad Khatami.

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We are signing off for the night. Thanks to all who kept up with us today and our thoughts with friends and colleagues in Tehran. We'll be back about 0530 GMT.

2230 GMT: Reports indicate that, although it is 3 a.m. in Iran, people are still milling about and shouting on the streets.

2100 GMT: Claims are coming in that tanks are on the streets of Tehran.

2045 GMT: We're sifting through reports of killings and of political developments; the latest is that Mir Hossein Mousavi will not be allowed to speak at the Tehran rally tomorrow afternoon. Meanwhile, we have posted latest video from protests yesterday and today.

1920 GMT: Protestors claim to have taken down Ahmadinejad's website by "swarming" it. They are now targeting Ayatollah Khamenei's website.

1845 GMT: Reports of four people killed in demonstrations in Rasht. There are claims of additional minibuses arriving with extra security forces and police.

The rally organised by Mousavi headquarters will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Tehran time (1130 to 1330 GMT) on Monday, marching from Enqelab Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square. Mousavi will address the crowd.

1730 GMT: Numerous reports of clashes at universities across Iran, with students beaten and detained. Universities include Tehran, Sharif, and Guilan in Rasht. Final examinations have been postponed at a number of universities.

According to Tehran Bureau, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, has confirmed plans for a rally on Monday and a national strike on Tuesday. She made the announcement in a talk to University students in Tehran.

1425 GMT: Although the importance of the public response to the election outcome should not be underestimated, it appears that events may now turn on a power struggle at the highest levels of the Iranian system.

In this reading of developments, it is not just an issue of President Ahmadinejad trying to retain his office but of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, preferring to work with a "new generation" of politicians rather than an older group associated with the years after the Islamic Revolution (examples include Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karroubi).

This strategy is now being resisted not only by Mousavi, who has a history of differences with the Supreme Leader from his days as Prime Minister in the 1980s, but also by former President Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, was the target of the current President's attacks just before the election.

Ahmadinejad's latest verbal salvo was his declaration last night that this was the time for the best representatives of the people to come forward and not just those who had worked with the Father of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. Meanwhile, there were stories of Rafsanjani meeting with Mousavi and Karroubi to plan their next steps to overturn the outcome and, consequently, to challenge the Supreme Leader.

We're preparing a full analysis of this struggle for Monday.

1300 GMT: Pro-Mousavi outlets are saying that there will be a march along Vali Asr Boulevard, a main Tehran north-south road, on Monday and a national strike on Tuesday.

1220 GMT: We have received our first message from Iran via Facebook in more than 24 hours.

Reports from Sharif University claim more than 2000 people are protesting.

1145 GMT: Iranian authorities have closed down Al-Arabiya's bureau in Tehran.

1130 GMT: Have just returned from a jogging break to join President Ahmadinejad's news conference in progress. Ahmadinejad, after declaring the Friday result was "the will of the people", is playing the nationalist card, in particular the Iran v. the "West" card. He is attacking Western media for their interference and saying that Western countries only accept "democracy" if the decision goes the way that they wish.

1025 GMT: The Mousavi campaign has told Al Jazeera that it will appeal to the Guardian Council, and it has applied to the Ministry of the Interior for a permit to hold a rally in Tehran. Al Jazeera's correspondent, continuing to be extremely careful on-air, has downplayed the move to the Guardian Council, as there is "no indication the election was anything but free and fair".

0955 GMT: Reports of protests at Sharif University, with 120 faculty resigning.

0910 GMT: Al Jazeera's correspondent in Tehran is being very careful with what he says on-air. He is cautious in references to demonstrations and questions the reports of arrest of more than 100 activists.

Students at Tehran University report that security forces entered the dormitories during the night. Further demonstrations are planned for today.

IRAN DEMOS 2Protesters have blocked one of the major expressways in/out of Tehran, bringing traffic to a standstill.

0905 GMT: Al Jazeera reports that the Ministry of the Interior has prohibited any unapproved public gathering but the order is being defied. This is apparent "spontaneous", as Mousavi headquarters are not supporting a public rally at this point. There are now reports of tear gas being used on demonstrators near Ahmadinejad headquarters.

Reports are also emerging of demonstrations and clashes in Rasht.

0900 GMT: There is still contact via the Internet with Iran, although reports are that the service is extremely slow, and there are fears of monitoring by security services.

Reports, apparently based on information given several hours ago to Reuters by former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, are that more than 100 "reformist" activists have been arrested. According to Abtahi, many of those arrested were members of the party Mosharekat. The brother of former President Mohammad Khatami is also reportedly among those detained.

0740 GMT: I have just seen an extraordinary interview on Al Jazeera. Professor Sadegh Zibakalam, the head of Iranian Studies at the University of Tehran, in contrast to the official line, commented on "spontaneous" demonstrations, emphasizing that they are without leadership so far. He added that there are rumours of the house arrest of Mousavi and also of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Zibakalam then began to criticise the Government reaction as "too harsh". At that point the feed to Al Jazeera was cut.

0735 GMT: Attention will soon turn to both the official Ahmadinejad victory celebration and any counter-demonstrations and rallies. Already there is tension over a supposed call for Mousavi supporters to rally in front of his campaign headquarters at 12:30 Tehran time --- some believe this is a trap laid by security forces, and Mousavi's office is calling on people to hold back from attending.

MORNING UPDATE 0700 GMT: The last few hours have been dominated by stories that opposition leaders, including Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, have been put under house arrest. Just before midnight GMT, the news of Mousavi's arrest was sent on Twitter by a pro-Mousavi activist (who is also the source of the dramatic photos we mentioned in yesterday's updates).

It is very difficult to get any information on this, as well as claims that up to 100 Iranians have been killed in protests. Social media such as Facebook have been cut, mobile phone service has been suspended or restricted, and it appears the Internet has been cut or seriously disrupted. Important but sometimes unverified information can be gathered through a few websites such as Tehran Bureau (although access to this is now difficult --- the Twitter site is still working). Our most important link to news now is via first-hand testimony on Twitter --- we have to be careful about unverified claims and even mis-information, but are doing our best to cross-check.

Press TV English has turned into an outlet for Ahmadinejad's victory. It has just led its news with stories of Ayatollah Khamenei's endorsement of the outcome, Ahmadinejad's speech, and a report of the vote. They also had a political analyst denouncing Mousavi's press conference on Friday claiming victory (although another analyst then wondered how Mousavi received only a third of the vote when "everyone" in Tehran was claiming to vote for him. The only reference to the demonstrations was a brief anodyne shot of a couple of protestors with the follow-up that the police said "everything was under control".

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2230 GMT: We're signing off until the morning. Thanks to everyone who sent us information today. To friends in Iran: our thoughts are with you.

2200 GMT: We have now posted the English translation of the letter released by Mir Hossein Mousavi to his supporters this afternoon.l

2145 GMT: In addition to the video of this afternoon's protests in Tehran, which we posted in this entry, we now have posted footage that the riots have spread this evening to the university in Shiraz and to the city of Mashhad..

2000 GMT: Juan Cole has posted a thoughtful analysis, "Top Pieces of Evidence that the Iranian Presidential Election Was Stolen", with re-construction of how the process might have unfolded. We have posted it in a separate entry.

1930 GMT: Mobile phone service was cut almost two hours ago. Many Iranians are now relying on the Internet for information, but there are concerns that this might be disrupted tomorrow. BBC Persian has now been blocked.

Some streets are still  crowded with demonstrators  shouting for Mousavi.

1740 GMT: President Ahmadinejad now addressing the nation. CNN has live feed. At times, CNN International television is going split-screen, putting Press TV's pictures Ahmadinejad address side-by-side with footage of demonstrations.

1735 GMT: A pro-Mousavi Twitter user suggests a way to access Facebook from Iran.

1715 GMT: An (unverified) story that we heard two hours ago is now circulating widely: Ministry of Interior officials called the Mousavi campaign to inform them of their candidate's victory. Mousavi was to write a victory speech, and a celebration was to be held Sunday (which, indeed, is what the Ahmadinejad campaign is now planning).

Shortly afterwards, however, the "information" was withdrawn without explanation.

1710 GMT: The correspondent for the American television network ABC reports that security forces have confiscated his crew's camera and videotapes. They are now shooting footage on cellphones.

1700 GMT: Facebook is blocked and SMS/texting systems are still out of service. Clashes continue between demonstrators and security forces around the Ministry of the Interior.

A correspondent notes that while the Supreme Leader has moved with unprecedented haste to endorse the election outcome (under Iranian law, the process is supposed to take at least three days), Iran's Guardian Council has not ratified the results nor has the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, congratulated Ahmadinejad.

There are reports that Mousavi, Karroubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami are gathering at the house of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

UPDATE 1640 GMT:A notable split is emerging in Western coverage between those who are ready to call the election rigged, such as Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation publishing the opinion of former Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi on an Ahmadinejad "coup d'etat", and those who claim that Ahmadinejad's landslide should have been foreseen, such as Abbas Barzegar in The Guardian.

Mehdi Karrubi's campaign manager is providing updates via Twitter.

UPDATE: 1530 GMT: The Flickr stream of Mir Hossein Mousavi is carrying a number of photos of violent clashes between police and demonstrators in Tehran.

UPDATE: 1500 GMT: Government websites put Ahmadinejad's vote at 22 million and Mousavi's at 11 million.

Both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have said that this is "the beginning of events" and they will stand up "to the end". Attention now turns to the statement of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

There are reports of closing of streets near the Interior Ministry and detentions by military forces. Some people working in Tehran are afraid to return to their homes.

Press TV English, which had provided relatively open coverage of the election, is saying nothing about today's tension over the outcome.

There are reports of clashes around the Ministry of Interior between demonstrators, police, security forces, and Basiji (unofficial security units).

Military forces around the Interior Ministry Military forces gather around the Ministry of the Interior

UPDATE: 0830 GMT: To limit the possibility of demonstrations, universities are closed. There are military forces scattered throughout Tehran. Some websites, including the BBC English-language site, have been blocked.

The official overseeing elections will shortly be speaking. More importantly, Mir Hossein Mousavi will be making a statement in the next few hours.

Pro-Mousavi correspondents from Tehran write of "a state of shock" at the outcome. One says simply, "Iran is mourning today."

UPDATE: 02.00 GMT: BBC reports that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so far 66 percent of the vote. Officials say that almost 70 percent of votes has been counted.

18:00 GMT Iranian election officials are calling the voter turnout "unprecedented", with queues of up to three hours. Polling stations were kept open an extra three hours.

In Washington President Obama said that the choice of President was "up to the Iranian people" but added that he hoped for "possibilities of change". In a far from coded reference, he said that he hoped the Iranian outcome would follow the example set by Lebanon on Monday.

5pm GMT: Voting has been extended by three hours (to 9pm local time) due to the heavy turnout, according to the BBC.

1pm  GMT: Turnout is very heavy throughout the country. An EA correspondent reports from north Tehran that there is an intensity and excitement in the public mood. Other correspondents report high expectations and hopes that there will be no "disruptions" in the count.

Government authorities are trying to damp down speculation of any altering of the result. The Intelligence Minister says that there have been no reports of electoral breaches while the head of the Parties' Desk declared that any reported misconduct would be dealt with swiftly. Amidst reports of 10 million phone texts being sent in recent days, the Telecommunications Ministry says it is investigating reports of disruption to SMS service.

Senior politicians and clerics are calling both for high turnout and fair conduct to hold up Iran as an example to the world. Candidate Mehdi Karroubi has called for tonight's decision to have the "respect of the nation".

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iran-rally2iran-rally1In Enduring America on 12 February, Chris Emery evaluated the announcement of former President Mohammad Khatami that he would stand in June's election. He wrote, "[It is] an link Khatami’s entry to the tentative prospect of normalised relations between Iran and the US," and focused on internal dynamics of Iranian politics: "It had been widely reported that Khatami would not run if former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi chose to....So all Iranian eyes will now watch if Mousavi, another popular reformist, is now the one to withdraw."

Three months later, and 24 hours before Iranians cast their votes in the first round of the Presidential election, I read Chris' piece with pride. He was half-right on the issue of the potential challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad --- it was Khatami who withdrew, leaving Mousavi in the race --- but months before many "Western" journalists and analysts noticed the campaign or dismissed it out-of-hand (only yesterday Thomas Friedman cast it aside as a "pretend election"), Chris saw its significance. This would not be a procession for the re-election of Ahmadinejad or a charade for Supreme Leader Khamenei to hand-pick a winner but a political space for Iranians to consider their political and economic present and future. Equally important, he got to the core of the issues that would shape the outcome: "It will be over presidential legacies and broken promises."

Yet, with respect, not even Chris could forecast how dynamic --- and potentially important --- this campaign has become.

From the moment that the field of major candidates was settled in March --- Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei, and former Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi --- it was clear that the President faced a very real challenge. Two words should have made this clear: The Economy.

When he took office in 2005, Ahmadinejad promised an uplift of Iran's people, especially its poorer people, through distribution
of state revenues and advances in technology, investment, and production. Generally speaking, that has not happened. There have been repeated conflicts between the President and his leading economic ministers and advisors, investment in key sectors has not progressed, and the over-reliance on oil income has tied re-distribution in part to the vagaries of the international market. (Of course, US-led sanctions have continued to constrict Iranian development, but these alone cannot account for Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy.)

Continuing difficulties do not doom the President. He still appears to retain a solid base of support amongst many voters who still the prospect of an improvement in their economic status, and Ahmadinejad --- normally a shrewd speaker and campaigner --- could overlay the power of his office with the appeal of nationalism. That in part explains why, far from US-Iranian relations and President Obama's "engagement", Ahmadinejad has ensured the appearance of Tehran as a front-line actor on the world stage, with setpieces such as his speech to the World Conference Against Racism and his recent summit with Afghan and Pakistani leaders. (It also probably explains in part why there have been high-profile test-firings of new Iranian missiles.)

However, as Ahmadinejad broadened the campaign beyond the economy, so did his opponents. Rezaei called for more accountability, Karroubi appealed for wider social rights, and Mousavi argued for meaningful change to ensure representation of and response to the populace's concerns. And, doing so, they (perhaps unexpectedly) opened the gates for an extraordinary escalation in the political process.

"Reform" has always accompanied the Islamic Revolution in its political discourse. President Khatami promised changes in his 1997 victory (and, arguably, was undone because he failed to deliver in his eight years in office). Ahmadinejad promoted reform in his surprise rise to the top in 2005. Lest it be forgotten, he ran as the outsider against the "establishment", defeating former President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the second round.

The convergence of economic concerns and repeated disappointment with the lack of political and social reform can lead to resignation that there will never be improvement. However, that convergence also carries the potential for moments of great change. (Forgive my one moment of a superficial jump from Iran to a "Western" analogy, but think USA 2008.) And, from my outsider's perspective, that moment may have occurred this year in Iran.

Symbolically, the catalyst appears to have been the Presidential Debates. The mere announcement that there would be, for the first time in Iran, head-to-head discussions between the four major candidates raised public interest. However, it was the second of the debates, between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, that lit the touchpaper. Thousands of people came onto the streets to watch the big-screen broadcasts. Politics turned into political theatre as Ahmadinejad --- again trying to stay off the ground of the economic situation --- levelled charges of corruption against not only Mousavi but also former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani but impropriety against Mousavi's wife and, equally importantly, as Mousavi overcame initial nervousness to put an effective case against the President's four years in office.

What does it means tomorrow? Any prediction of a victor would be not only fool-hardy but premature. After all, this is only the first round of the election when, unless anyone captures an unlikely majority of the vote, four candidates are narrowed to the top two. (I really do not believe many Western journalists, in their simplified renditions of the campaign, have noticed this.)

Those top two --- although this should not diminish the efforts of Rezaei and Karroubi --- will probably be Ahmadinejad and Karroubi. So, once more on the narrow but important ground of the pragmatic, there will be assessments of whether Karroubi will endorse Mousavi and his voters will follow (probable) and whether Rezaei will express any second-round preference, publicly or privately (uncertain). Ahmadinejad will likely re-double his paradoxical effort to portray himself as the "outsider" running, after four years in office, against the corrupt establishment of political figures such as Rafsanjani, although this may be curbed by the increasing disquiet not only of many voters but also of politicians and clerics over the tactic. Mousavi will turn the President's tactic around, portraying Ahmadinejad as not only the insider but the leader who has frittered away his mandate, and the good of the Iranian people, since 2005.

But what will happen tomorrow and even in the second round does not capture the ongoing importance of these recent months.

On my visits to Iran, and afterwards in correspondence with friends and colleagues, I have learned about and been reminded often of the "third generation", those Iranians who came of age after the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Quite often, the third generation was characterised as detached from the Revolution, disillusioned, dissatisfied. In recent weeks, however, the third generation --- and more than a few other Iranians --- have been in rallies, on the streets (on Monday, there was the largest outside gathering in more than a decade), and, yes, even on Facebook with excitement and some expectation.

I don't know if this constitutes a "Gradual Revolution", another phrase that I have frequently heard. I certainly would not twist and misrepresent it with the politically-loaded "Velvet Revolution". But, again as an outsider, there has been an opening of debate and thus of political space which could be significant not just for this election but for years to come.

Put simply --- and anticipating Western headlines after Friday about "The Obama Effect" in Iran, about "moderates" v. "hard-liners", about reinforcement or downfall of an Axis running from Iran to Syria to Lebanon's Hezbollah to Palestine's hamas --- these events first and foremost are not about the US. They are not about a clash in the Middle East, in nuclear arsenals, between civilisations.

These events are about Iranians: their concerns, their hopes, their ideals. And, whatever the outcome tomorrow and in the second round, they should be respected as such.