- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran braced for a massive march of black-clad mourners Thursday as public anger pushed the country toward a breaking point and a leading Iranian human rights group put the death toll at more than 30 in five days since a disputed presidential election.

The Association of Human Rights Activists in Iran reported Wednesday that it could confirm “the deaths of 32 Iranian citizens connected to the events of June 14 and June 15, based on its own fieldwork and despite numerous other reports.” It said it had several additional reports of Iranians being killed that it was unable to verify.

The government has acknowledged seven deaths.

On Wednesday, opposition protesters numbered in the hundreds of thousands for the third consecutive day in response to government claims that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won Friday’s presidential election by a landslide.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who many Iranians believe won the elections, called supporters to the streets Thursday and urged them to wear or carry something black.

Click here to see YouTube video of protests. (Warning: Graphic content.)

“A number of our countrymen were wounded or martyred,” Mr. Mousavi said on his Web site. “I ask the people to express their solidarity with the families … by coming together in mosques or taking part in peaceful demonstrations.”

The mourning tactic, like the street protests, is reminiscent of the 1978-79 revolution that overthrew Iran’s monarchy and replaced it with an Islamic republic.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is to speak at Friday prayers in Tehran, perhaps giving the clearest indication yet whether the government will back down on its insistence that Mr. Ahmadinejad won 63 percent of the votes, compared with 34 percent for Mr. Mousavi.

The government has promised a recount in some districts, and state television for the first time referred to pro-Mousavi demonstrators as “supporters of the defeated candidate,” not hooligans, a sign of potential compromise.

Iran specialists said it is too soon to say how or when the protests might end.

“We’ve moved beyond the alleged election fraud to a broader confrontation over the direction of the Islamic republic,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Iran analyst with the Congressional Research Service. But he said a fundamental breakdown was unlikely unless authorities start shooting en masse.

The vote and its contested aftermath have deepened the split in Iran’s political elite between reformers and pragmatists associated with Mr. Mousavi and former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and hard-liners following Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei.

While protesters have power on the streets, the authorities control Iran’s security forces.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said prominent reformers - including Saeed Hajjarian and Mohammed Ali Abtahi, former close aides to Mr. Khatami - had been arrested. Other high-profile arrests, it said, included Abdolfattah Soltani, a lawyer who worked with Shirin Ebadi, a human rights campaigner and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize; Mohammed Atrianfar, a prominent journalist close to Mr. Rafsanjani; Saeed Laylaz, a well-known economist, and Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister who took part in talks with the U.S. in 2001-2002 and who appears in a new documentary, “Iran and the West.”

The government barred Iranian reporters from covering demonstrations and refused to extend the visas of foreign journalists but has failed to keep news from reaching the outside world - and returning back to Iran - through e-mails, satellite television and social-networking sites.

Seeking to compete with video clips posted on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook by citizen journalists, the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) network even showed a bit of footage of the latest unauthorized demonstration in Tehran.

In a sign of potential compromise, the state broadcasters for the first time called the protesters Mousavi supporters rather than “vandals.”

Javad, a sociology professor who asked to be identified only by his first name, told The Washington Times that User Generated Contents (UGC) broadcast by the BBC Persian service and viewed by Iranians inside and outside the country were uniting the people in a way not seen since the 1979 revolution.

A doctoral student in political science at a university in Tehran who gave his name as Zanjani, said broadcasts on state-controlled television showed that the authorities were unnerved by the level of protests.

“In order to decrease the high risk of confrontation, authorities have decided to recognize protesters and then bring them to the negotiation table,” he added. “The demonstrations were called almost illegal since the first days and demonstrators labeled as anarchists and outlaws.”

“Showing scenes from a peaceful, nearly silent rally in support of martyrs in current demonstrations and calling it a demonstration by protesters of a failed presidential candidate … is the last solution of government to control the wave of demonstrations,” another Iranian, Ali, said in a telephone interview from Tehran. “I was at Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square, and they realize that there is no way to hide the elephant, so they decide to show it as a mouse.”

Pro-Mousavi protests were reported in a number of Iranian cities, including Rasht, Orumiyeh, Zanjan, Zahedan, Tabriz, Mashhad, Isfahan and Shiraz.

Outrage even spread to the other side of the globe, where several members of Iran’s national soccer team, competing Wednesday in South Korea in a World Cup qualifying match, wore green wristbands in solidarity with the Mousavi campaign.

State-run media accused the United States and other Western countries of inciting protests. On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador - who represents U.S. interests - to lodge a formal complaint.

The U.S. has expressed concern about the violence, but says it will deal with Iran, no matter who emerges as president.

Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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