Obama Says 'World Is Watching' Iran's Crackdown

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sends ominous warning to protesters.

June 19, 2009, 7:08 AM

June 19, 2009 — -- President Obama warned Iran today that the "world is watching" after the country's supreme leader told anti-government protesters that they were inviting violence if their massive protests over the presidential election continued.

And Congress voted overwhelmingly today to condemn the Iran's crackdown on the protesters who claim the Iranian presidential election was rigged.

Some Republicans used the vote to complain that Obama has not been forceful enough in dealing with Iran.

The statements and votes in Washington were among a flurry of reactions from Western capitals condemning the Iranian regime for trying to shut down electronic communication among dissidents, arresting protesters and banning foreign reporters from covering the masssive rallies in support of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The statements poured out after Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a defiant speech to say the reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been free of fraud, the widespread protests were illegal and ominously warning that any further demonstrations were inviting violence.

Khamenei also blamed much of the unrest on foreign media as well as the U.S., Britain and Israel.

The House voted 405-1 to denounce Iran's actions and they were quickly followed by a Senate resolution that also condemned the Iranian crackdown.

Republicans in the House criticized Obama for what they considered a tepid response to Iran's tough measures, with one congressman comparing Obama's reaction to President Ronald Reagan's speech near the Berlin Wall.

"When Ronald Reagan went before the Brandenburg Gate, he did not say Mr. (Mikhail) Gorbachev, that wall is none of our business," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

Obama told CBS News today that he is very concerned by the "tenor and tone" of comments by Khamenei, who warned of a crackdown if protesters continue massive street rallies.

The president said that Iran's government should "recognize that the world is watching," and "how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard" will signal "what Iran is and is not."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the GOP comments that Obama hasn't done enough are wrong.

"I will say, as the president has said, we're not going to be used as political foils and political footballs in a debate that is happening in Iran. There are many people in the [Iranian] leadership that would love us to get involved and would love to trot out the same old foils they've used for years," Gibbs said.

Other Western leaders echoed the congressional statements.

Britain called in Iran's ambassador today to complain about comments Khamenei made criticizing the United Kingdom as well as "evil British radio," referring to BBC's Persian service, which has a wide audience in Tehran.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said European Union nations jointly condemned violence against opposition protesters in Iran saying, "The whole of the world is speaking out."

German chancellor Angela Merkel called Khamenei's speech "disappointing" and French President Nicholas Sarkozy said the world is "preoccupied by the violence of the Iranian election reaction and the courage of the Iranian people."

China and Russia, however, have been quiet about the recent events.

Khamenei Warns of Illegal Protests

In his speech at a mosque at Tehran University, Khamenei spoke for nearly two hours and insisted there was no fraud in Iran's disputed presidential elections and said that the state would not cheat. "The people have made their choice," he said.

He also gave Ahmadinejad his full support. "It's natural to have differences of opinion," he said. "But I believe the president's [views] are closer to what they should be."

Speaking after six days of massive protests against the controversial re-election of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei said, "Today the Iranian nation needs calm."

Friday prayers at the mosque at Tehran University -- a huge, outdoor, open-air arena -- are the premier forum for Iran's religious leaders. The location is full of historical meaning. It was on the campus of Tehran University that the Islamic revolution was born in 1979. And today, it is certain much of Iran would have been watching and listening closely to Khamenei's words.

Khamenei blamed "Iran's enemies" in the West, singling out the United States, Great Britain and Israel for undermining the elections. The "Zionist-owned Western media," he said, are to blame too.

"The enemies [of Iran] are targeting the Islamic establishment's legitimacy by questioning the election and its authenticity before and after [the vote]," he said.

"After street protests, some foreign powers ... started to interfere in Iran's state matters by questioning the result of the vote. They do not know the Iranian nation. I strongly condemn such interference," Khamenei said.

Turning his attention to the United States, the ayatollah said, "American officials' remarks about human rights and limitations on people are not acceptable because they have no idea about human rights after what they have done in Afghanistan and Iran and other parts of the world. We do not need advice over human rights from them."

More ominously for the opposition, Khamenei made it clear he disapproved of any "illegal" challenges.

"Elections are decided by the ballot box not in the streets," he said.

Equally ominously, he explicitly warned opposition leaders, "If rallies continue, they will be responsible for violence." The opposition, so far, is undeterred and have not canceled plans for a rally on Saturday.

For the first day since Monday, there were no reports of opposition protests in Tehran, but according to the Associated Press, residents of Tehran continued to climb to their rooftops to chant "Death to the Dictator!" in open defiance of Iran's supreme leader's pleadings today.

BBC reporter Jon Leyne, who has covered Iran for several years, described the atmosphere on the streets of Tehran as very tense.

"Government supporters have come out in force," he said on "Good Morning America." "Great hostility to the Western media, and to people they believe are trying to undermine this country."

Leyne said Khamenei's tough rhetoric against the West and warnings to Iranian protesters that they face dire consequences if they don't stop rallies does not bode well for the country.

"I think this is a black day for Iran and its relations with the outside world," he said. "A real, new phase in this crisis from the supreme leader."

Khamenei Tells Protestors: Stop Your 'Illegal Demands'

In Paris, Mousavi's unofficial spokesman, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, told ABC News that the Mousavi camp is asking other countries to not recognize Ahmadinejad's election.

He said 700 of Mousavi's supporters have been arrested, the former candidate's communications offices have been ransacked, and Mousavi himself has come under government restrictions.

Watch "Good Morning America" Saturday, June 20, for more of ABC News' interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Makhmalbaf said Mousavi has been "assigned" a government protection force that strictly controls his movements and access to the media. "Mousavi is 20 percent free and 80 percent under house arrest," he said.

Ahmadinejad was in attendance at Khamenei's speech, but Mousavi was not. Many read this as a sign the men were made aware of the supreme leader's stance ahead of the speech.

Addressing the protestors, Khamenei said, "It's a wrong impression that by using street protests as a pressure tool, they can compel officials to accept their illegal demands. This would be the start of a dictatorship."

He challenged opposition supporters over charges of vote-rigging, saying, "Iran's laws do not allow vote-rigging. ... With these laws, how could it be possible to have such vote-rigging?"

Mousavi has appealed for the election result to be annulled.

Supporters of the government, carrying posters of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the father of the 1979 Islamic revolution, packed streets outside the university.

"Ahmadinejad has been our president for four years, and during this time he has always told the truth to our people," Javid Abbasirad, 48, told Reuters, as he stood outside the university gates.

At the same location, hundreds of university students had protested against the election results Sunday, hurling stones at riot police. Tehran University was the site of serious clashes against student-led protests in 1999 and is one of the nerve centers of the pro-reform movement in Iran.

Today, some members of the crowd were draped in Iranian flags, others carried placards and flyers with anti-Western slogans. "Don't let the history of Iran be written with the pen of foreigners," one flier said.

On Thursday, thousands of anti-government protesters were joined by Mousavi in a march to mourn the deaths of at least eight demonstrators killed in the wake of last week's elections.

The protesters, seen on TV, many wearing black and holding photos and the names of those killed, jammed Iman Khomeini square, according to various media reports. "Why did you kill our brothers?" read one sign, Reuters reported, "Our martyred brothers we will take back your votes," read another.

Iran Has Barred Foreign Reporters From Covering Protests

Foreign media are still officially barred from covering unauthorized demonstrations.

With many foreign reporters now forced to leave the country, the protestors inside Iran have become the world's eyes and ears on the ground, filming protests on their cellphones and distributing the footage on Web sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Facebook users who speak Persian [Farsi] helped create a Persian-language translation of the site, which was launched Friday. Google also added Farsi to its Google Translations tool today.

"We feel that launching Persian is particularly important now, given ongoing events in Iran," the company said in a release.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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