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West's standoff with Iran escalates

July 01, 2009

Editor's note: Iranian authorities have barred journalists for international news organizations from reporting on the streets and ordered them to stay in their offices. This report is based on the accounts of witnesses reached in Iran and official statements carried on Iranian media.

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In fresh displays of defiance, Iran's opposition leader told supporters Wednesday "it's not yet too late" to push for their rights, and he joined a reformist ex-president in condemning the regime for a post-election crackdown both said was tantamount to a coup.

Iran's standoff with the West escalated with the European Union considering pulling out all 27 of its ambassadors in retaliation for the recent detentions of several local employees of the British Embassy in Tehran, despite Iranian claims that all but one had been released.

Embattled opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi said he considered Iran's cleric-led government illegitimate, and he demanded that it release all political prisoners and institute electoral reforms and press freedoms. Former President Mohammad Khatami, meanwhile, lashed out at what he termed "a poisonous security situation" in the wake of violent street protests.

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In boldly worded statements posted on their Web sites, Khatami accused Iran's leadership of a "velvet coup against the people and democracy," and Mousavi said the government's crackdown on demonstrators was "tantamount to a coup."

Wednesday's confrontations with the regime came as Iran's feared Basij militia accused Mousavi of undermining national security and asked a prosecutor to investigate his role in the protests.

Khatami, an ally of Mousavi -- who contends the June 12 election was marred by widespread fraud and insists he was robbed of victory -- scorned the government for declaring incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner in a landslide.

"Given what has been done and declared unilaterally, we must say that a velvet revolution has taken place against the people and democratic roots of the system," Khatami said. "People's protests were suppressed, those who were required to protect people's rights humiliated the people ... yet it (the government) speaks of national reconciliation and peace."

Mousavi said he was troubled by "the bitter, widespread distrust of the people toward the declared election results and the government that caused it."

"It's not yet too late," said Mousavi, who has slipped from public view in recent days. "It's our historic responsibility to continue our complaint and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people."

Mousavi also condemned alleged attacks by security forces on college dormitories where "blood was spilled and the youth were beaten," and he called for a return to a more "honest" political environment in the Islamic Republic.

"A majority of the people -- including me -- do not accept its political legitimacy," he said, adding: "There's a danger ahead. A ruling system which relied on people's trust for 30 years cannot replace this trust with security forces overnight."

State television reported Wednesday that all but one of nine Iranian employees of the British Embassy in Tehran had been released, and the sole Iranian still in custody was being held on suspicion of playing a role in post-election protests. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he had information suggesting two local employees might still be in detention.

Both Britain and the EU had condemned the detentions as "harassment and intimidation," and Britain asked the 27-nation bloc to withdraw its ambassadors.

The semiofficial Fars news agency, meanwhile, said the Basij -- known as supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's street enforcers -- sent the chief prosecutor a letter accusing Mousavi of taking part in nine offenses against the state, including "disturbing the nation's security," which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment.

Iran's regime says 17 protesters and eight Basiji were killed in two weeks of unrest that followed the election.

The powerful Guardian Council, Iran's top electoral oversight body, pronounced the election results valid earlier this week -- paving the way for Ahmadinejad to be sworn in later this month for a second four-year term.

"Whether he wanted to or not, Mr. Mousavi in many areas supervised or assisted in punishable acts," said the Basij letter, which also accused Mousavi of bringing "pessimism" into the public sphere.

Fars also reported Wednesday that a total of 1,032 people were detained during post-election unrest. It cited police chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam as saying most had been released and the rest "have been sent to the public and revolutionary courts" in Tehran.

In another sign of a tightening government clampdown on anyone challenging Ahmadinejad, a reformist political group said authorities banned a newspaper allied to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi after he denounced Iran's government as "illegitimate" because of claims of voting fraud.

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