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Iran recount seen as bid to placate opposition

WILLIAM J. KOLE | 6/29/2009, 10:41 a.m.

North Tehran is a base of support for opposition Mir Hossein Mousavi, who insists he - not Ahmadinejad - won the disputed June 12 election.

The Guardian Council, Iran's top electoral oversight body, said it planned to complete the recount of a random 10 percent of ballots by the end of the day. Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said the recount was aimed at gaining "the confidence of the respectable supporters of candidates."

Yet it was unclear what purpose the recount would serve. Khamenei and the Council already have pronounced the results free of major fraud and insist that Ahmadinejad won by a landslide, and Mousavi has insisted the government nullify the results and hold a new vote - steps it flatly refuses to consider.

State TV said Mousavi representatives met with a Guardian Council election review panel, but it ended in a stalemate and officials decided to proceed with the recount.

Witnesses who spoke with the AP said they did not spot Mousavi at Sunday's rally. But one of his close assistants addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker and other opposition figures also appeared, including reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi.

Local news site Rooz Online said Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, were supposed to attend the protest - but when they couldn't reach the scene, Mousavi addressed supporters via a telephone held up to a megaphone, and spoke of "the importance of the people's vote and peace."

Sunday's clashes erupted at a rally that had been planned to coincide with a memorial held each year for Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who came to be considered a martyr in the Islamic Republic after he was killed in a major anti-regime bombing in 1981.

Iranian authorities say 17 protesters and eight Basijis have been killed in two weeks of unrest, and that hundreds of people have been arrested.

Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Basij commander Hossein Taeb - whose militiamen have played a key role in the government's effort to quash protests - as saying that authorities arrested several people who dressed in police and Basiji uniforms and smashed car windows.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said its information suggests at least 2,000 arrests have been made - "not just (people) arrested and later released, but who are locked up in prison," the group's vice president, Abdol Karim Lahidji, told the AP.

He said his information came from members of human rights groups in Iran and other contacts inside the country.

Iran's increasingly acrimonious relations with the West complicated President Barack Obama's hopes of engaging the regime in dialogue over its nuclear program. Iran insists its program is peaceful and geared solely toward generating electricity; the U.S. and its allies contend that Tehran is covertly trying to build a nuclear weapon.

U.S. officials said Sunday that the administration remains open to discussions on Iran's nuclear ambitions despite questions about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad.

"It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

But it won't be easy, said Reza Aslan, a renowned Middle East scholar and author.

"How is the administration going to have a conversation with Ahmadinejad when there is no sense of (his) legitimacy?" Aslan told the AP. "It will almost be impossible to sit down and talk."

Kole reported from Cairo. Associated Press Writer Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Cairo contributed to this report.