CAIRO – Iran's top electoral body said Tuesday it found "no major fraud" and will not annul the results of the presidential election, closing the door to a do-over sought by angry opposition supporters alleging systematic vote-rigging.
Iranian government officials have repeatedly suggested that a revote is extremely unlikely. However, Tuesday's announcement by Iran's top electoral body, the Guardian Council, was the clearest yet in ruling out a new election.
The announcement on Iran's state-run English language Press TV is another sign the regime is determined to crush the post-election protests — the strongest challenge to its leadership in 30 years — rather than compromise..
Government warnings to the protesters have intensified.
Ebrahim Raisi, a top judicial official, confirmed Tuesday that a special court has been set up to deal with detained protesters. "Elements of riots must be dealt with to set an example. The judiciary will do that," he was quoted as saying by the state-run radio. The judiciary is controlled by Iran's ruling clerics.
In recent days, Iran's supreme leader has ordered demonstrators off the streets and the feared Revolutionary Guards has threatened a tough crackdown. At least 17 people have been killed in near-daily demonstrations, including at least one that drew hundreds of thousands.
In recent days, members of the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij militia and other Iranian security forces in riot gear have been deployed across Tehran, preventing any gatherings and ordering people to keep moving. A protest of some 200 people Monday was quickly broken up with tear gas and shots in the air.
In a boost for the embattled regime, Russia said Tuesday that it respects the declared election result, which the Iranian government described as a landslide victory for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The U.S. and many European countries have refrained from challenging the election outcome directly, but have issued increasingly stern warnings against continuing violence meted out to demonstrators.
Ahmadinejad's main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has charged massive fraud and insists he is the true winner.
However, the Guardian Council found "no major fraud or breach in the election," a spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, was quoted by Press TV as saying. "Therefore, there is no possibility of an annulment taking place."
The 12-member council has the authority to annul or validate the election. On Monday, it said in a rare acknowledgement that it found voting irregularities in 50 of 170 districts, including vote counts that exceeded the number of eligible voters. Still, it said the discrepancies, involving some 3 million votes, were not widespread enough to affect the outcome.
Iran has 46.2 million eligible voters, one-third of them under 30. The final tally was 62.6 percent of the vote for Ahmadinejad and 33.75 percent for Mousavi, a landslide victory in a race that was perceived to be much closer.
According to an analysis by the British think tank Chatham House, the huge margin went against the expectation that the record 85 percent turnout would boost Mousavi, whose campaign energized young people.
Ahmadinejad won crucial backing from Russia on Tuesday, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow saying it respects the declared election result. In a statement on its Web site, the ministry said that disputes about the vote "should be settled in strict compliance with Iran's Constitution and law" and are "exclusively an internal matter."
Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has longtime political and economic ties with Iran where it is helping build a nuclear power plan at Bushehr. In his only trip abroad since the vote, Ahmadinejad traveled to Russia last week for a conference where he was seen prominently shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Many Western democracies, including the U.S., have criticized the way in which the Iranian government has dealt with the widespread protests, and renewed Iranian government threats of a crackdown have heightened concerns.
In New York, U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon urged an "immediate stop to the arrests, threats and use of force," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Monday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on Iran to recount the votes, but stopped short of alleging electoral fraud. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been outspoken in his criticism of Iran's response to the demonstrations, but said doors must remain open to continue talks on the country's nuclear program.
In contrast, China, Venezuela and some other developing countries tended to be supportive of the Iranian government, whose nuclear activities, alleged involvement in terrorism and influence in regional conflicts have alarmed the West for years.
After a huge opposition rally a week ago, protests have become smaller, but demonstrators have been more willing to confront Iranian troops.
On Monday, Tehran riot police fired tear gas and live bullets to break up about 200 protesters paying tribute to those killed in the protests, including a young women, Neda Agha Soltan, whose apparent shooting death was captured on video and circulated worldwide. Witnesses said helicopters hovered overhead.
Caspian Makan, a 37-year-old photojournalist in Tehran who identified himself as Soltan's boyfriend, said she had not been deterred by the risk of joining protests. "She only ever said that she wanted one thing, she wanted democracy and freedom for the people of Iran," he told an Associated Press reporter during a telephone call from Tehran.
Severe restrictions on reporters have made it almost impossible to independently verify reports on demonstrations, clashes and casualties. Iran has ordered reporters for international news agencies to stay in their offices, barring them from reporting on the streets.
A number of journalists have been detained since the protests began, though there have been conflicting accounts. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders put the figure of reporters detained at 34.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said 13 were still in custody, including Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari.
The Iranian government must release all journalists and halt "unreasonable and arbitrary measures that are restricting the flow of information," the committee said. "Detaining journalists for reporting news and commentary indicates the government has something to hide.