Iran's Interior Minister announced Saturday that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won 63.29% of the vote in the nation's closely watched presidential poll. The announcement, greeted with widespread skepticism by Iranian opposition supporters and by foreign analysts, has brought thousands of people onto the streets where they have encountered a strong police presence and the threat of violence.
Rumors of vote rigging had been flying for hours before the official announcement. At about 11 p.m. Friday, less than an hour after polls closed, reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi held a press conference and declared that he knew based on the observations of his campaign officials at polling booths that he had won a majority of the vote. But rigging was already underway, said Mousavi, who warned that he and the people would stage mass protests if their votes were not respected.
Early results, which indicated a likely win for the incumbent, were released by the Interior Ministry shortly after midnight and broadcast on state television. Small groups of Ahmadinejad supporters gathered in various spots around the capital to hold spontaneous celebrations, waving his image and chanting, "Ahmadinejad is love."
But there was little love at Mousavi's campaign offices. At one office, the police broke up a large crowd of supporters with batons and closed down the building. At another, a group of basijis (pro-regime paramilitaries) took about 100 people hostage before being overpowered by Mousavi supporters.
By Saturday morning, the most often repeated exclamation in Tehran was: "It's not possible!"
Groups of protestors headed to the city's squares and main streets, where they faced regular beatings by police using batons and pepper spray. Eyewitnesses say the police beat a young man to death north of Vanak Square.
At about 5 p.m., two crowds of several hundred people both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad supporters gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior, just off Jahad Square in central Tehran. They were separated by police lines, but chanting back and forth as they had all week. Suddenly, the police charged the Mousavi supporters. There were two ranks of police on motorcycles, two policemen per bike, dressed in body armor that made them look like starship troopers. They charged into the crowd, brandishing billy clubs, followed by police on foot, with clubs and shields.
The police were firm but not brutal. They pushed the crowd, rather than swinging at it. Still, people were knocked down; one woman in a chador was down in the street, screaming in pain as she was dragged toward the sidewalk by her husband.
The Mousavi supporters were pushed down the street several blocks, and into side streets. When the police retreated, they re-gathered, chanting "Death to the Dictator" and "Mousavi, We'll Protect You" and "Iran looks like Palestine" (the last, an apparent reference to the constant scenes of similarly dressed Israeli police dispersing Palestinian rock-throwers). No rocks were thrown, only a few plastic water bottles. Several dumpsters were overturned and set on fire.
Mousavi supporters have been comparing stories, wondering how their man could have lost. "On a bus yesterday," offered one middle-aged man, "we took a count. Out of the people on the bus, 33 said they voted for Mousavi, and 11 said they voted for Ahmadinejad." The president prides himself on having the support of economically less privileged people exactly the people who ride on buses and in shared taxis.