Obama: Ahmadinejad and Mousavi not very different

US president says both leaders belong to regime that is pursuing nuclear weapons; protesters: Hamas members helping Iran crush dissent.

iran election protests great 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
iran election protests great 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama said Tuesday that there was not much difference between the policies of incumbent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who supporters have led nation-wide protests against Friday's election results. "It's important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised," Obama told CNBC news. "Either way we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and has been pursuing nuclear weapons," he said. Watch footage of riots from youtube: On Tuesday two protesters told The Jerusalem Post that Palestinian Hamas members are helping the Iranian authorities crush street protests in support of Mousavi. They made their allegations as rioting on a scale unseen in Iran for nearly a decade continued in the wake of the elections and the allegations that the results were falsified. The protests have now spread from Teheran to other major cities. Mousavi insisted on Tuesday that he would "protect" his supporters' votes "at all cost, even if I am at risk." Shouting from a car roof to a roaring crowd of supporters, he declared: "The pillars of the revolution have been shaken... We must not be silent." Hamas formally welcomed incumbent Ahmadinejad's ostensible reelection victory on Saturday. The Palestinian Islamist movement receives arms and funding from Iran, and its members have often received training there, including in terror tactics and weapons manufacture. Despite a massive crackdown on dissent, thousands of protesters rallied again in Teheran on Tuesday night in support of Mousavi, following reports that up to 20 people had been killed by security forces at rallies across Iran against the disputed results of last week's presidential elections. Pro-government gunmen, reportedly opening fire on protesters, killed at least seven people on Monday night and others have been wounded. State radio reports claimed that the victims were trying to loot weapons and to vandalize public property, and were shot by unidentified gunmen. People claiming to have witnessed the shootings, however, insist that the victims were peaceful demonstrators, including students from Teheran university. "There are so many crimes, beatings and killings that have yet to be reported. When we fight back, it is for our own protection," said a young man passing out flyers with the names of those he said were murdered Teheran University students. Among those named were Fatima Brahati, Kasra Sharafi, Kambiz Shahi, Mohsen Emani and Mina Ahtrami. Their bodies are said to have been secretly buried by government loyalists. Amid the violence, confusion and government restrictions on communication, the accuracy of conflicting accounts is hard to ascertain. "The most important thing that I believe people outside of Iran should be aware of," the young man went on, "is the participation of Palestinian forces in these riots." Another protester, who spoke as he carried a kitchen knife in one hand and a stone in the other, also cited the presence of Hamas in Teheran. On Monday, he said, "my brother had his ribs beaten in by those Palestinian animals. Taking our people's money is not enough, they are thirsty for our blood too." It was ironic, this man said, that the victorious Ahmadinejad "tells us to pray for the young Palestinians, suffering at the hands of Israel." His hope, he added, was that Israel would "come to its senses" and ruthlessly deal with the Palestinians. When asked if these militia fighters could have been mistaken for Lebanese Shi'ites, sent by Hizbullah, he rejected the idea. "Ask anyone, they will tell you the same thing. They [Palestinian extremists] are out beating Iranians in the streets… The more we gave this arrogant race, the more they want… [But] we will not let them push us around in our own country." Israeli intelligence officials said on Tuesday that while the regime's decision to allow a partial recount of the presidential vote was "interesting," it was "highly unlikely" Mousavi would be declared the winner of last Friday's vote. Defense officials told The Jerusalem Post there was little chance the Guardian Council would overturn its declaration that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the winner since it would be an embarrassment to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who endorsed the results. The most that could be expected, officials said, was that the results would be changed by a few percentage points in Mousavi's favor. A witness said the pro-Mousavi rally stretched more than 1.5 kilometers and security forces did not interfere with the demonstration. Other witnesses said about 100 people were still protesting in front of state TV late on Tuesday night after the government barred foreign media from covering rallies in Teheran - even the state-organized demonstration earlier in the day, where government officials urged the crowd not to let the election divide the nation and said the unrest would not threaten Iran's Islamic system. Thousands of people waving Iranian flags and pictures of the country's supreme leader massed at a rally organized by the clerical regime in an apparent attempt to reclaim the streets hours after saying it would recount some disputed presidential ballots. Khamenei on Monday ordered the Guardian Council, an unelected body composed of 12 clerics and experts in Islamic law closely allied to the supreme leader, to investigate the election results after he met with Mousavi on Sunday. Mousavi also sent a letter to Khamenei outlining his allegations. A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was quoted on state TV as saying the recount would be limited to voting sites where candidates claim irregularities took place. He did not rule out the possibility of canceling the results, saying doing so was within the council's powers, although nullifying an election would be an unprecedented step. In Paris, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the council's decision was an indication that the Iranian regime "was not indifferent" to the hundreds of thousands of pro-Mousavi demonstrators. Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "what matters is the position of the [supreme] leader and this has not changed. The riots are taking place only in Teheran and one additional region. They won't last for long." Dagan said he didn't believe the riots would become a full-fledged revolution. The violence in the wake of the allegations of vote-rigging was not different from "any other democracy," he said, adding that the discussion over the elections currently involved only a small sector of the Iranian population. "What ultimately determines it is the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and that has not changed. This is an argument within the Iranian elite. There is an argument regarding sources of influence, but this is an internal matter," he said. Dagan also warned the Islamic republic could have an operational nuclear bomb ready for use by 2014, and dismissed claims that a second revolution was brewing in the streets of Teheran. "In terms of the nuclear project, it's no longer a technical issue, because the Iranians have solved their technical problems," said Dagan. "If there aren't any technical errors, Iran will have a bomb ready for deployment by the end of 2014. This is a significant threat to the existence of the State of Israel and we need to distance this threat from us." Israel would actually have an easier time explaining the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons to the world if the country continued to be led by a hard-line, fanatical president [Ahmadinejad] than if Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is seen as a moderate, had won the election, Dagan said. However, "we mustn't forget Mousavi is the one who started the nuclear program." Also Tuesday, government sources said their curiosity had been perked by European hints over the last few days that its relationship to Iran on the nuclear issue could be linked to how it dealt with the protests sweeping the country. The 27 EU foreign ministers issued a statement on Monday saying the EU would continue to follow developments in Iran. "It remains a priority for the EU that Iran engages with the concerns of the world community, above all on the issue of Iran's nuclear program," the statement said. "The [European] Council wishes to engage with the Islamic Republic of Iran on the basis of mutual respect, but it requires Iran to recognize and act urgently on its responsibilities and obligations." According to government sources in Jerusalem, this was one of a few small hints popping up here and there indicating that an Iranian iron fist clamping down on the protesters could lead the international community to take a more forceful position on the nuclear issue. The sources noted that both Germany and France on Monday summoned the Iranian ambassador to their capitals to express concern and receive explanations. The sources warned, however, against overstating the case, saying the situation in Iran was still delicate and fluid, and it was much too early to tell how it would play out regarding the world's relationship with the Islamic republic. The sources said the international community had for months largely been in a holding position regarding Iran for the past few months, waiting to see how the elections played out. It was quite possible, though again too early to tell, that the pictures coming out of Teheran would leave some kind of impression on the West that would impact on the diplomacy surrounding the nuclear issue, they said. "When the Iranians are at their worst, the international community tends to pull back from them and sober up regarding any illusions they have that the regime might be more flexible," one source said. "In that case one of the things the Iranians can do is possibly send out 'warm and fuzzies' on the nuclear issue." The clerical government appears to be trying to defuse popular anger and quash unrest by announcing the limited recount, even as it cracks down on foreign media and shows its strength by calling supporters to the streets. Mousavi has said he won Friday's balloting, and he demanded the government annul Ahmadinejad's victory and hold a new election. Iran's state radio said seven people were killed in clashes at Monday's protest - the first official confirmation of deaths linked to the street battles following the disputed vote. It said people were killed during an "unauthorized gathering" at a mass rally after protesters "tried to attack a military location." Witnesses saw people firing from the roof of a building used by a state-backed militia after Mousavi supporters set fire to the building and tried to storm it. Mousavi supporters had called for demonstrations on Tuesday, but Mousavi said in a message on his Web site he would not be attending any rally and asked his supporters to "not fall in the trap of street riots," and to "exercise self-restraint." Foreign reporters in Iran to cover last week's elections began leaving the country on Tuesday after officials said they would not extend their visas. Authorities restricted other journalists, including Iranians working for foreign media, from reporting on the streets, and said they could only work from their offices, conducting telephone interviews and monitoring official sources such as state TV. At least ten Iranian journalists have been arrested since the election, "and we are very worried about them, we don't know where they have been detained," Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders told AP Television News in Paris. He added that some people who took pictures with cellphones were also arrested. The government imposed rules prevent media outlets, including The Associated Press, from sending independent photos or video of street protests or rallies. Yaakov Katz, Herb Keinon, Rebecca Anna Stoil, AP and JPost.com staff contributed to this report.