By Bridget Johnson - 06/13/09 10:56 AM EDT
The Obama administration's plans for Iranian outreach got a new challenge after Friday's elections in the Islamic Republic produced a strongly disputed win for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Obama has set a timeline of the end of the year to know if such talks are bearing fruit, but Iran may be preoccupied with internal strife as opposition supporters cry foul at the election results and the Revolutionary Guard has promised to crush any "revolution" raised by dissenters.
But on Friday, Ahmadinejad faced three challengers including Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric who criticized Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust denial and incendiary tone toward the West, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who promised equal rights for women and took the unusual step of campaigning with his wife, Zahra.
After polls closed, Mousavi declared himself the winner. Shortly afterward, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency declared that Ahmadinejad had won the presidency with 69 percent of the vote.
By Saturday morning, IRNA had amended that to 62.63 percent for Ahmadinejad to 33.75 percent for Mousavi. Karroubi reportedly got less than one percent of the vote.
Polling before the election had predicted everything from a dead heat between the two candidates to a resounding defeat for Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi wasted no time crying foul.
"I'm warning that I won't surrender to this manipulation," Mousavi said in an online statement, adding that "people won't respect those who take power through fraud" and that the announced results were "treason to the votes of the people."
Mousavi labeled the results a “dangerous charade.”
"I personally strongly protest the many obvious violations and I'm warning I will,” he said, according to Reuters. “The result of such performance by some officials will jeopardize the pillars of the Islamic Republic and will establish tyranny."
Authorities banned any demonstrations in Iran on Saturday, having broken up hundreds of Mousavi protesters who'd gathered on Friday night, and riot police reportedly beat supporters wearing Mousavi's trademark campaign green outside his office on Saturday. Mousavi called for his backers to remain calm.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who all but endorsed Ahmadinejad by dictating before the elections that voters must shun pro-Western candidates, expressed happiness Saturday with both the turnout pegged at more than 80 percent, according to IRNA, and the results.
"I congratulate ... the people on this massive success and urge everyone to be grateful for this divine blessing," said Khamenei, who has the final say over all issues in Iran.
“We tried to send a clear message that we think there's a possibility of change and, ultimately, the election is for the Iranians to decide but just as what has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well, is that you're seeing people looking at new possibilities,” Obama said. “And whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there's been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways.''
Even if Mousavi assumed the president's office, though, Washington may not have seen much of a change. Mousavi supports Iran's right to a nuclear program, has called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and supported the fatwa against the life of British author Salman Rushdie during his term as prime minister.
Because the supreme leader has the final word in Iran, particularly on foreign policy, Mousavi mostly promised domestic reforms. But even many of those reforms attempted by former President Mohammad Khatami were repealed after he ceded the office to Ahmadinejad.
Khatami had announced his candidacy in Friday's elections, but dropped out in March to endorse Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad was to address the nation on Saturday night, reported IRNA.
Aaron Blake contributed to this report