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      Iran reform leader says pressure to drop challenge

      Mir Hossein Mousavi / AP photo

      Iran's opposition leader pledged Thursday not to withdraw his election challenge despite what he said were attempts to isolate and discredit him, while the declared winner of the vote, hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accused President Barack Obama of meddling in Iran's affairs.

      Obama, along with other Western leaders, has ratcheted up his criticism of Iran's clampdown on postelection protesters in recent days, something Iran has described as foreign interference.

      In the latest sign of government attempts to silence dissent, 70 university professors were detained late Wednesday after a meeting with the main opposition figure, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has alleged massive fraud in the June 12 vote.

      In recent days, demonstrators challenging the election results have found themselves increasingly struggling under a blanket crackdown by government authorities.

      A march by another opposition figure, reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi, initially set for Thursday, was postponed for lack of a permit, a day after club-wielding security forces dispersed a small group of protesters outside Iran's parliament.

      Mousavi, who last led a protest rally a week ago, described his growing difficulties for the first time Thursday, in a statement posted in his official Web site, Kalemeh.

      He said authorities were increasingly isolating and vilifying him in an attempt to get him to withdraw his election challenge.

      Mousavi said he would not back down. "I am not ready to withdraw from demanding the rights of the Iranian people," he said, adding that he was determined to prove electoral fraud.

      The final tally was 62.6 percent of the vote for Ahmadinejad and 33.75 percent for Mousavi, a lopsided victory in a race that was perceived to be much closer.

      Mousavi also defended himself and his movement, identified by the color green, against the barrage of claims on state media about foreign hands behind the unrest. "The green movement is not dependent on foreigners," he said.

      On Wednesday, Mousavi met with 70 university professors, said the Web site, Kalemeh. The professors, among a group pushing for a more liberal form of government, were detained after the meeting, the site said. It was not clear where the professors were taken, the report said.

      Mousavi's comments came as his rival Ahmedinejad reiterated complaints about foreign interference Thursday, singling out Obama, in a statement quoted by Iranian state television.

      "We expect nothing from the British government and other Europeans governments, whose records and backgrounds are known to everybody and who have no dignity, but I wonder why Mr. Obama, who has come with the slogan of change, has fallen into this trap, the same route that Mr. Bush took and experienced its ending," Ahmadinejad said, referring to Obama's predecessor.

      Before the Iranian election, the Obama administration had indicated that it was interested in reaching out to Iran, after years of a diplomatic freeze following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has given no clear signal that it is interested in Obama's overture. In the wake of the vote, Obama has used increasingly harsh language to discuss Iran, saying he was "appalled" by the clampdown.

      Ahmadinejad, who is to be sworn in for a second four-year term by August, warned that there would be "nothing left to talk about" if the U.S. leader kept up such a tone. "This will not have any result, except that the people will consider you similar to Bush," he said.

      The direct attacks on Obama and the U.S. president's sharper tone on Iran could complicate any attempt at a dialogue, which Washington hopes will include talks on the scope of Iran's disputed nuclear program.

      Yet Ahmadinejad's standing at home appears to have suffered over the election dispute. Several Tehran newspapers reported that 185 out of 290 members of parliament, including Speaker Ali Larijani, stayed away from a victory celebration for Ahmadinejad on Tuesday.

      Ahmadinejad's patron, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said the election result would not be reversed.

      The fallout may leave Khamenei and the ruling theocracy battered by once-unthinkable defiance of their leadership. But they still control the Revolutionary Guard and its vast network of volunteer militias that watch every corner of Iran.

      The Guard " sworn to defend the Islamic system at all costs " has been steadily expanding its authority for years to include critical portfolios such as Iran's missile program, its oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure, and some oversight of the nuclear program.

      Iran's most senior dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, warned the authorities in a statement that trying to snuff out dissent would prove futile.

      If people are not allowed to voice their demands in peaceful gatherings, it "could destroy the foundation of any government," regardless of its power, wrote Montazeri. He was the heir apparent to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until falling out of favor with the ruling clerics by questioning their almost limitless powers. Montazeri spent five years under house arrest in the city of Qom, a center of clerical power and Shiite Islamic learning.


      Laub reported from Cairo.


      Iranian authorities have barred journalists for international news organizations from reporting on the streets and ordered them to stay in their offices. This report is based on the accounts of witnesses reached in Iran and official statements carried on Iranian media.


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