Options Shrink for Opposition

TEHRAN — Step by step, Iran’s leaders are successfully pushing back threats to their authority, crushing street protests, pressing challengers to withdraw or to limit their objections to the disputed presidential election and restricting the main opposition leader’s ability to do much more than issue statements of outrage.

Two weeks after Iran’s disputed presidential election, Mir Hussein Moussavi, the top challenger, issued an angry statement Thursday that underscored his commitment to press ahead — but also his impotence in the face of an increasingly emboldened and repressive government.

Mr. Moussavi does not have a political organization to rally, and during the height of the unrest he attracted a large following more because of whom he opposed — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — than because of what he stood for, political analysts said.

Repressive government

A hardline cleric seen as a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime today demanded that opposition demonstrators be punished “without mercy”.

Even as Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami delivered his uncompromising message at Tehran’s Friday prayers, foreign ministers of the world’s leading industrialised nations issued a statement deploring the regime’s violent crackdown on the protestors and demanded it “stop immediately”.

Mr Khatami’s televised sermon came at the end of a week in which the regime has brutally suppressed all streets protests and rounded up hundreds of opponents for daring to question President Ahmadinejad’s re-election. It conveyed the unmistakable message that no dissent would be tolerated, and that the crackdown would, if anything, intensify.

Tehran 'like a war zone'

Bloody clashes broke out in Tehran today as Iran's supreme leader said he would not yield to pressure over the disputed election. The renewed confrontation took place in Baharestan Square, near parliament, where hundreds of protesters faced off against several thousand riot police and other security personnel.

Witnesses likened the scene to a war zone, with helicopters hovering overhead, many arrests and the police beating demonstrators.

One woman told CNN that hundreds of unidentified men armed with clubs had emerged from a mosque to confront the protesters.

"They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood and her husband fainted. They were beating people like hell. It was a massacre," she said.

The opposition website Rooz Online carried what it said was an interview with a man the government had shipped in to Tehran to quell the demonstrations. He said he was being paid 2m rial (£122) to assault protesters with a heavy wooden stave, and that other volunteers, most of them from far-flung provinces, were being kept in hostel accommodation, reportedly in east Tehran.

With the independent media banned from covering street protests, the reports could not be verified.

There were also unconfirmed reports tonight that Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, had been arrested. Earlier in the day she had called on the authorities to release Iranians who had been detained.

In remarks posted on her husband's website, Rahnavard said: "I regret the arrest of many politicians and people and want their immediate release. It is my duty to continue legal protests to preserve Iranian rights."

At least 17 demonstrators have been killed

TEHRAN — Hundreds of protesters clashed with waves of riot police and paramilitary militia in Tehran on Wednesday, witnesses said, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that the authorities would not yield to pressure from opponents demanding a new election following allegations of electoral fraud.

It was impossible to confirm the extent of the new violence in the capital because of draconian new press restrictions on coverage of the post-election mayhem. But the witnesses reached by telephone said the confrontation, in the streets near the national Parliament building, was bloody, with police using live ammunition.

Defying government warnings, hundreds, if not thousands of protesters, had attempted to gather in front of the parliament on Baharestan Square, witnesses said. They were met with riot police and paramilitary militia, who struck at them with truncheons, tear gas and guns. One witness said he saw a 19-year-old woman shot in the neck. Others said the police had shot in the air, not directly at demonstrators.

Some opposition supporters said that presidential candidate and opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi had been scheduled to address the crowd, but initial reports indicated that he had not appeared.

The violence came as additional details emerged about the sweeping scale of arrests that have accompanied the nation’s worst political crisis since the 1979 revolution. A New York-based human rights group, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, listed the names Wednesday of 240 detained in the crackdown. Iranian state media have reported 645 arrests, but the total number of detained may be as high as 2,000, the organization said, citing human rights activists in Iran.

Among them are people arrested in a Monday night raid of a campaign office for Mr. Moussavi in Tehran, Press TV, state television’s English-language satellite broadcaster, reported Wednesday. The government said the office was being used as “a headquarters for psychological war against the country’s security,” and claimed that evidence had been found of “the role of foreign elements in planning post-election unrest.”

Also detained are 102 political figures, 23 journalists, 79 university students and 7 university faculty, the human rights organization said. By official reckonings, at least 17 demonstrators have been killed.