TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran intensified its crackdown on opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, with the arrest of staff at his newspaper and vitriolic attacks from the hardline press on Wednesday after he vowed to press on with his campaign against the disputed presidential election.
The latest action came amid rising tensions between Iran and the West after US President Barack Obama raised questions about the legitimacy of the election and expressed outrage over the violence against on opposition protesters.
Iran has refused to overturn the results of the poll that returned hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, but supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has extended by five days a Wednesday deadline to examine vote complaints.
Tehran's streets remained tense but quiet on Wednesday, two days after the last opposition rally was crushed by hundreds of riot police armed with steel clubs and firing tear gas.
And one defeated candidate, former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai, has withdrawn his protest about election irregularities, in a blow to the opposition which has staged almost daily demonstrations since the June 12 vote.
"(Iran's) political, social and security situation has entered a sensitive and decisive phase, which is more important than the election," Rezai said in a letter to the Guardians Council, the top election body.
Mousavi, who was prime minister in the post-revolution era, has urged supporters to keep demonstrating but to adopt "self-restraint" to avoid further bloodshed while another defeated candidate Mehdi Karroubi called for a mourning ceremony on Thursday for slain protesters.
Police have arrested 25 journalists and other staff at Mousavi's Kalemeh Sabz (Green Word) newspaper--which was shut down about 10 days ago--one of its editors said on Wednesday.
Intelligence police said they had found "evidence of a plot against national security" at a candidate's campaign office used for "psychological warfare," the official IRNA news agency said, without identifying the candidate.
"Who is responsible for the week-long crime in Tehran?" charged pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper Vatan Emrouz above a front-page picture of Mousavi, who has continued to challenge what he says was a rigged vote.
The Revolutionary Guards, the elite force set up to protect the Islamic republic, has warned of a "decisive and revolutionary" riposte to any further protests.
The foreign media is banned from reporting from the streets under tight restrictions imposed since the unrest was unleashed, but images of police brutality have spread worldwide via amateur video over the Internet.
In his strongest comments yet, Obama said on Tuesday there were "significant questions about the legitimacy" of the poll but insisted Washington was not interfering.
"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days."
Obama described as "heartbreaking" the shooting on a Tehran street of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death featured on an Internet video seen around the world and has become a poignant symbol for the opposition.
Iran has retaliated against the international backlash, accusing Western governments, particularly major foes Britain and the United States, of meddling in its internal affairs.
Britain--described by Khameini as the "most evil" of Iran's enemies--said it was expelling two Iranian diplomats in a tit-for-tat move while a number of other European nations have hauled in envoys to protest at the election and the repression of protests.
At least 17 people have been killed and many more wounded in the violence that has convulsed the nation since the vote, according to state media.
Many hundreds of protesters, prominent reformists and journalists have also been rounded up by the authorities, including two reporters working for US publications.
The crisis is the worst in Iran since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago and has jolted the pillars of the clerical regime, with even some top officials raising concerns about the vote.
Analysts have also warned that oil prices could spike higher if the situation deteriorates in Iran, OPEC's second largest crude exporter.
The Guardians Council, a 12-member unelected body of Islamic clerics and jurists, insisted on Tuesday the election results would stand.
"We witnessed no major fraud or breach," spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai said. "Therefore, there is no possibility of an annulment taking place."
However, Mousavi's campaign office released a report on "electoral fraud and irregularities" in the poll that gave him just 34 percent of the vote to 63 percent for the incumbent.
It denounced what it said was "large-scale" official support for Ahmadinejad and spoke of ballot papers being printed on polling day without serial numbers, doubts about whether ballot boxes were empty when they arrived at polling stations and candidates' representatives being banned from vote centres.
Independent British think tank Chatham House has said the results show "irregularities" in the turnout and "highly implausible" swings to Ahmadinejad.
In Washington, analysts say that although the immediate flashpoint is Ahmadinejad's disputed victory, the real struggle now is over the authority of Khamenei, who has ruled over Iran for 20 years. (By JAY DESHMUKH/AFP)