TEHRAN, Iran – Hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters defied authorities Monday and marched to Tehran’s Freedom Square, as the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader ordered an investigation into allegations of voter fraud that the opposition described as little more than an attempt to dampen anger over the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Seven people died in clashes after an “unauthorized gathering” following a mass rally, Iran’s state radio said, according to an Associated Press report late Monday.
Earlier, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the Guardian Council, which is filled with his own appointees and led by a hard-line cleric close to Ahmadinejad, to examine challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s claims of vote fraud.
Days after Khamenei blessed the election of Ahmadinejad and urged Iranians to rally behind the president, the spokesman of the Guardian Council urged Mousavi’s supporters to wait for the “final results” of Friday’s election after an investigation into claims of fraud that will begin today.
“My request to the dear candidates and their supporters, who are trying to voice their objections while respecting the law and ethics, is to bear with us,” council spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadkhodai said in a roundtable discussion on live television Monday. “The final result will be the one announced by the Guardian Council, which everyone should hopefully accept.”
The protesters, with crowd estimates ranging from 100,000 to more than 1 million, defied Interior Ministry warnings broadcast on state television and radio that anyone showing up would be beaten or worse, and even ignored Mousavi’s last-minute call to cancel the event.
They found out about the rally despite a media clampdown that brought the shuttering of numerous opposition Web sites, including those linked to Mousavi, the jamming of satellite news channels and the shutting down of text-messaging systems.
President Barack Obama said his administration would continue to seek to negotiate with Iran’s leaders.
“I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television,” Obama said in Washington. “I can’t state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election. But what I can say is that there appears to be a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy who now feel betrayed.”
Khamenei for years has tried to put his own religious ultra-conservative faction in charge of all branches of government. He marginalized not only the nation’s secularists but reformist and pragmatist leaders who were pillars of the Islamic revolution, risking a backlash by barring huge swaths of people from political power.
There were few signs that the unrest would let up. Across the crowd, people passed information about another gathering today in Vali Asr Square, in central Tehran. Mousavi supporters also called for a general strike today. “I am fed up with the rigging of votes,” said Nargess Hassanpour, 24, an architect. “I had never voted until last Friday. I am here and I march toward Azadi Square as far as I can reach, and let come what may.”
University activists alleged that the Basiji killed five students as they stormed the campus to quell a demonstration. The school’s chancellor confirmed the attack but did not mention the deaths.
By 5 p.m., a flood of people surged from west to east toward the huge expanse of Freedom Square, nearly filling the entire roadway as well as the surrounding green space, with more demonstrators pouring in from all directions. They held up their fingers in the “V” signs that have become popular.
“Rockets, tanks, Basiji no longer have any effect on us!” they chanted, updating a popular slogan from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“If I died today it would be perfect,” said Hossein, 60, a retired schoolteacher, walking through crowd with the help of a cane. “The nation of Iran has woken up.”