- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

Protests continued into the night in Tehran as demonstrators clashed with Iranian security forces, and President Obama warned Iran that it would not get the respect it seeks from the world until it respects its own people.

Eyewitnesses reported fires burning in downtown Tehran. Many residents of the capital again took to their roofs to chant “God is Great,” a slogan used during the 1979 Islamic Revolution that has been revived since the disputed presidential election last week shook the foundations of the Islamic republic.

Earlier, Iranian security forces cracked down harshly on demonstrators who defied a warning by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to end protests challenging the purported landslide re-election victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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Thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Tehran on Saturday afternoon. Witnesses said the demonstrators chanted “Death to the dictator!” and “Death to dictatorship!” in apparent reference to Ayatollah Khamenei.

An Iranian who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ali, told The Washington Times that he saw security forces near Azadi (Freedom) Square dropping tear-gas canisters into buildings sheltering demonstrators, driving motorcycles into crowds of people and firing tear gas into demonstrators’ eyes. As he spoke, continuous shooting could be heard in the background, along with cries and shouts.

A graphic video posted on Facebook by Goli Fassihian, a spokeswoman for the National Iranian American Council, showed the body of a young woman whose face was covered in blood. Another video showed a young man with blood on his chest lying on the street, with gunshots ringing out around him.

Other videos posted on Facebook and numerous other Web sites showed security forces firing into crowds of jeering demonstrators and fires raging in the streets.

A Tehran resident who asked to be identified only by her first name, Maryam, told The Times by phone that plainclothes police made no effort to arrest people near Azadi Square, choosing instead to beat or shoot them.

Government media reported earlier that a suicide bomber blew himself up at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution.

CNN reported at least 19 dead from clashes with security forces. The Associated Press said 50 to 60 injured had been taken to hospitals. The government has released no figures, and journalists have been ordered to remain in their offices.

A Tehran resident who asked to remain anonymous sent an e-mail to a reporter saying that he was beaten by members of the Basij, a paramilitary group.

“When we got to the meeting place, it was chaos. Everyone was running and shoving and pushing. People were yelling profanity at the Basij, who would beat them in return. I was smacked in the side with a baton four times. We hadn’t even reached the actual protest yet. This was still on the outside, where Basij were forcing people back. I found one of my friends with a bloody nose. There was blood on the cabs, on the streets, everywhere. We heard about deaths and decided to turn back. Now I’m home.”

Reuters news agency reported that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate, who many Iranians think actually won the June 12 election, appeared in southwestern Tehran and said he was “ready for martyrdom.” The news agency, quoting an identified Mousavi ally, said Mr. Mousavi also called for a national strike if he is arrested.

Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University whose book “The Reign of the Ayatollahs” describes Iran’s 1979 revolution, praised Mr. Mousavi for not backing down as other Iranian leaders have done during pro-democracy protests over the past decade.

“He has taken action, and that is very important,” Mr. Bakhash said.

He reserved his highest praise for those who turned out on Saturday despite being faced by “thugs armed with chains, guns and knives.”

“They came out anyway. That says a lot about their bravery. The government discredited itself by sending thugs after peaceful demonstrators,” Mr. Bakhash said.

Daniel Brumberg, an Iran specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he heard from a contact in Tehran that there are scenes of fires and chaos in the city while a few blocks away, people are eating ice cream.

“So far the regime has been pretty successful” in preventing another huge demonstration like one on Monday that attracted as many as a million protesters, Mr. Brumberg said. He said the authorities were selectively cutting off cell-phone coverage so that people in areas where there were disturbances could not call out.

“Until some segment of the security forces feels embarrassed, humiliated or endangered,” the regime is likely to prevail, he added.

Mr. Obama, who has been criticized by some for not speaking out forcefully about the situation in Iran, issued his strongest statement to date, suggesting that his desire to engage with the Iranian government has been undermined by its actions since the election.

“The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights,” Mr. Obama said.

“As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

“Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people’s belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness,” the president said.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that in the past has supported engagement between the U.S. and the Iranian government said Ayatollah Khamenei has made “numerous major mistakes” and should change policy or “he will be responsible for turning Tehran into Gaza.”

The comment was particularly telling because the Iranian regime considers itself an ally of the Palestinians against Israel.

The Iranian government earlier sought to forestall the protests by blocking protesters from gathering on the main street between Revolution and Freedom squares, the scene on Monday of the largest protest demonstration since the 1979 revolution.

“We acted with leniency, but I think from today on, we should resume law and confront more seriously,” Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam, the head of Iran’s police, told the state broadcasting channel, according to the AP. “The events have become exhausting, bothersome and intolerable. I want them to take the police cautions seriously because we will definitely show a serious confrontation against those who violate rules.”

Hundreds of Iranian opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested, and protests have also been reported in cities across the nation.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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