Iran’s top election body on Monday began a partial recount of the fiercely disputed presidential election, after opposition demonstrators defiantly faced off against riot police in Tehran.
The move came as Iran faced growing international pressure over its arrest of British embassy staff accused of fomenting unrest in the aftermath of the June 12 election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.
“The Guardians Council has started a partial recount of 10 percent of the ballot boxes,” state-owned Arabic-language television Al-Alam said.
The opposition is demanding a complete rerun of the vote, claiming it was marred by widespread irregularities and fraud in a dispute that has shaken the very foundations of the Islamic regime.
On Sunday, riot police in Tehran dispersed about 3,000 supporters of Ahmadinejad’s strongest rival Mir Hussein Mousavi who defied a ban on public gatherings, witnesses said.
A witness spoke of a “minor confrontation” between police and the demonstrators who had gathered around Ghoba mosque to mark the anniversary of a prominent cleric killed in a bombing 28 years ago.
The information could not be independently verified as foreign media are banned from the streets under tough new restrictions imposed by the authorities in the wake of the election.
The Guardians Council, an unelected body of 12 jurists and clerics, has set up a committee to conduct the recount but Mousavi and fellow defeated candidate Mehdi Karroubi rejected the panel and declined to send any representatives to oversee the count.
Karroubi, a reformist former parliament speaker, insisted in a letter to the council on Sunday that a partial recount was “not enough” and called for an independent body to probe “all aspects of the election.”
Mousavi, who was prime minister in the post-revolution years, won 34 per cent of the vote against 63 per cent for Ahmadinejad, a gap of 11 million votes, according to official results. Karroubi came a distant fourth with less than one per cent.
Iran’s Islamic rulers, battling with their worst crisis since the 1979 revolution, have also lashed out at the West - particularly Britain - for alleged meddling in the election and its violent aftermath.
On Sunday, Tehran announced the arrest of eight local British embassy staff for playing what the Fars news agency said was a “considerable role” in the unrest.
Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie accused the British embassy of sending local staff “undercover among rioters in order to push its own agenda,” the official IRNA news agency reported.
“Some of these individuals... have been summoned. Some have been released after preliminary investigations and some have been kept in custody,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said London had protested strongly over the arrests, which he described as “harassment and intimidation” and dismissed claims the embassy was behind the demonstrations.
EU nations also vowed to respond to any harassment of diplomats in Iran with a “strong and collective response”, Miliband told reporters at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Corfu.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Manouchehr Mottaki - who has said Tehran was considering downgrading its ties with London - urged Britain and the EU not to take rash action.
“Don’t continue with this losing game because this is neither in the interests of the British people nor the two countries’ relations that have (already) been damaged because of the British government’s behaviour,” he said.
He also called for European countries and officials to “revise their stand” towards Iran, after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused European and American officials of making “idiotic comments” about the country.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said on Sunday that more than 2,000 people are still in detention and hundreds more are missing across Iran since a government crackdown on protesters and opposition supporters.
Since the election at least 17 people have been also killed in clashes with security forces during the massive public demonstrations against the election, according to state media.
British newspapers called for a measured response to the row.
“Let our cool heads embarrass their synthetic display of hysteria,” said the Independent in an editorial, calling for Britain to coordinate any response with the European Union.
“If they then choose to accelerate this dispute even further, it will be clearer to most Iranians, and to the world, which side is angling for a fight - and why.”