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Iran’s Ruling Cleric Calls For End to Protests

June 19, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Iran’s supreme leader issued a stern warning today against any more mass protests. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied last week’s presidential election was rigged, and he told demonstrators in the streets to stop or face the consequences.

We begin our lead story coverage with a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The streets around the university mosque were packed. Iranians had been told not just to watch on television, but to turn out in person, the idea being to make it look like the revolution 30 years ago.

They filled the massive mosque, and shouted the ritual slogan, “Death to America.” In the throng, President Ahmadinejad. Conspicuously absent amongst the politicians and dignitaries, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the opposition and his powerful backer, Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The supreme leader was clear and unequivocal: No more street protests will be tolerated.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, Iran Supreme Leader (through translator): I’m asking everyone to end this method. This is not a correct way. If they won’t put an end to this method, they will be responsible for its aftermath and crisis. If politicians want to trample the law beneath their feet, they’re responsible for the blood and the violence and the havoc.

LINDSEY HILSUM: He said it was natural for Iranians to believe in different candidates, that the election was fair, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose views happen to accord with his own, was the legitimate president.

The crowd responded with roars of approval and cries of, “Our vote is written in blood, and we gave it to the leader.”

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI (through translator): The law in our country does not allow vote-rigging. This is something anyone involved in our elections would verify. When the difference is 100,000 or 500,000 or even 1 million votes, you may say they cheated, but how could you manipulate 11 million votes?

LINDSEY HILSUM: He blamed foreign powers for the upheaval, especially Britain, which was the “most evil” of Western governments.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI (through translator): The most treacherous government is Britain. They’re drowning in corruption. You’ve heard about the scandal of its parliament; the whole world knows.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The British government today summoned the Iranian ambassador to complain about Mr. Khamenei’s remarks, and the prime minister gave the strongest statement yet about the election.

GORDON BROWN, Prime Minister of Britain: We are with others, including the whole of the European Union, unanimously today in condemning the use of violence, in condemning media suppression, and in condemning attempts, of course, to make sure that there are people who are political prisoners who are not free to express their views in Iran.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The protestors who turned out in such great numbers yesterday and on the previous days have been warned: Any more scenes like this will not be tolerated.

Ayatollah Khamenei said the ballot box, not the street protests, would decide the presidency. If Mr. Mousavi and his backers refuse to call off tomorrow’s demonstration, it will now be regarded not as a challenge to the election result, but to the supreme leader.

The ayatollah's warnings

JIM LEHRER: After that report was filed, Judy Woodruff talked with Lindsey Hilsum by telephone from Tehran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lindsey Hilsum joining us from Tehran. Lindsey, what would you say of the ayatollah's speech is causing the most comment right now?

LINDSEY HILSUM: I think that what has really disturbed people who have been protesting on the street is the not-very-hidden threat. He said that people -- that if people continue to come out on the streets, the leaders who break the law would be responsible for the bloodshed and any form of unrest.

And so I think what that's taken to mean is that, if the Basij militia or other forces of the state come out and try and put down any further protests, then it would be the opposition leaders, the failed election candidate, Mr. Mousavi, and others who would be held responsible for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what reaction are you able to see or hear so far?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, I understand that Basij militia are out on the streets tonight, and that is rather threatening. I'm told that they have rifles, they have clubs, and they have bicycle chains.

Now, an organization of reformist clerics had called for people to come out on the streets tomorrow again and protest. Mr. Mousavi has indicated that he is not calling for any protests tomorrow or the next day, but we don't know if that cancels the other rally.

And another main opposition reformist leader, Mr. Karroubi, he is still challenging the authority. He has put out a letter saying that the Guardian Council and the supreme leader should accept the Iranian nation's will by canceling the votes and guaranteeing the establishment's survival.

Now, I've been trying to speak to people this evening, although the telephones are very, very difficult here. And I'd say people are really scared. One man who I know who's in Mr. Karroubi's camp said to me, "Look, I just can't talk to you anymore. I can't talk to you in this situation."

Another young man I know who's been very active out on the streets, he just said, "Everybody's really frightened now."

Fear of violence

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think most people are afraid will happen or could happen?

LINDSEY HILSUM: People are afraid that, if they turn out on the streets, that the Basij militia will attack them, that they will physically attack them.

What has been happening in previous days is that the big mass of demonstration has been allowed to go ahead, so you've had huge numbers of people on the streets and the police have stood by. Now, when those demonstrations start to break up towards dusk, then there have been attacks by the police and sometimes clashes, as well, and also attacks by the Basij militia.

And I think that what people fear is that the demonstrations themselves will now not be tolerated and that this could lead to a high degree of violence.

What we don't know is whether this will deter people from coming out onto the streets tomorrow. When I spoke to people yesterday, they said nothing would deter them; they would all come out. But that was before the supreme leader spoke.

Now, people know that, if they come out on to the streets, they're not just challenging the election results. They're challenging the supreme leader; they're challenging the Islamic republic itself. Now, that is seen as very serious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so to the extent the momentum has gone back and forth over the last few days, where do you think the momentum is now?

LINDSEY HILSUM: I don't know, because every day I wake up and it's changed. At the moment, the supreme leader has made these very serious warnings, some would say threats, so the momentum is with him and with the state and with the government, with the forces of law.

But tomorrow, this could change. And if the people, especially the young people, decide to come out on the streets again, and if Mr. Karroubi, this reformist leader, comes out with them, Mr. Mousavi gives them a go-ahead, as it were, then the momentum will go back again.

And so we're looking at people -- they're looking into the abyss here, because the supreme leader has suggested that anybody who protests now is really an enemy of the state. That's what he's suggesting.

But the people who have been challenging the election results, they haven't yet indicated that they're going to stand down, that they're going to let this go. Everything hangs in the balance tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lindsey Hilsum, reporting for us from Tehran, thank you very much.

LINDSEY HILSUM: You're welcome.