Police officers moving toward Vali Asr Square in Tehran on Monday.
CAIRO — Iran’s most powerful oversight council announced on Monday that the number of votes recorded in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters there by three million, further tarnishing a presidential election that has set off the most sustained challenge to Iran’s leadership in 30 years.
The government continued with a two-track approach in its showdown over the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even as the powerful Guardian Council acknowledged some irregularities in the June 12 election, it insisted that the overall vote was valid. At the same time, security forces stepped up their threats to treat protesters as criminals seeking to destabilize the country.
A group of as many as a thousand demonstrators at Haft-e-tir Square in central Tehran was quickly overwhelmed Monday by baton-wielding riot police and tear gas shortly after the Revolutionary Guards issued an ominous warning on their Web site saying that protesters would face “revolutionary confrontation.” Opposition leaders said the next move may be civil disobedience or a general strike.
The legitimacy of the vote remains at the core of the dispute. On Monday, the Guardian Council sought to help validate the outcome when it announced there had been discrepancies in 50 cities, which it said involved up to three million votes, not enough to overturn the landslide election margin that the government had announced for Mr. Ahmadinejad. But the recognition of a broad discrepancy between the number of recorded votes and registered voters in some districts only fueled suspicions that the election — and the Guardian Council’s arbitration of it — was unfair.
“I don’t think they actually counted the votes, though that’s hard to prove,” said Ali Ansari, a professor at the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and one of the authors of a study of the election results issued by Chatham House, a London-based research group.
The Guardian Council is scheduled to certify or nullify the vote on Wednesday, or, some speculated, call for a runoff between the two top vote-getters. It has so far appeared to prejudge the race as fair and legitimate.
“Statistics provided by the candidates, who claim more than 100 percent of those eligible have cast their ballot in 80 to 170 cities are not accurate — the incident has happened in only 50 cities,” said the council spokesman, Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei. He said this outcome could occur because people may vote anywhere they choose, not necessarily only in their district of registration.
But many districts where the excess votes were recorded are small, remote places rarely visited by business travelers or tourists, analysts said, raising questions about how so many extra votes could have been counted in so many different areas.
The extra votes add to a list of complaints leveled against the election by the reform candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, and other challengers inside and outside Iran. Among them:
How did the government manage to count enough of the 40 million paper ballots to be able to announce results within two hours of the polls closing? How is it that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory remained constant throughout the ballot count? Why did the government order polls closed at 10 p.m. when they often stay open until midnight for presidential races? Why were some ballot boxes sealed before candidates’ inspectors could validate they were empty? Why were votes counted centrally, by the Interior Ministry, instead of locally, as in the past? Why did some polling places lock their doors at 6 p.m. after running out of ballots?
In specific terms, analysts who have scrutinized the election results available in Persian and English said that for Mr. Ahmadinejad to have won 63 percent to Mr. Moussavi’s 34 percent, he would have had to have won over most people who four years ago supported the liberal reform candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the Parliament who ran again this year. They said the president also would have had to have garnered the votes in that 2005 race that went to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a bitter opponent of Mr. Ahmadinejad who backed Mr. Moussavi this time.
“In the province where Karroubi did best in 2005, his home province of Lorestan, Ahmadinejad got some 71 percent of the vote,” wrote Nate Silver in an analysis that was posted on fivethirtyeight.com, a politics and polling Web site. He added, “If Ahmadinejad won the election, he did it by winning over these rural Karroubi voters. And if he stole it, those were the votes he stole or intimidated.”
The review of voting statistics released this week by St. Andrews University and Chatham House reached a similar conclusion.
“The plausibility of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s claimed victory is called into question by figures that show that in several provinces he would have had to attract the votes of all new voters, all the votes of his former centrist opponent, and up to 44 percent of those who voted for reformist candidates in 2005,” said Thomas Rintoul, one of the study’s authors.
The leadership of the Islamic republic takes voting very seriously as a symbol of legitimacy and loyalty to the system. Voting always occurs on a day off, to maximize turnout.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, said that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory was so great — 11 million votes — that there could be no doubt it was legitimate. He never addressed any of the specific charges of fraud.
“Sometimes the difference is 100,000, 500,000 or even 1 million,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in his speech to the nation during Friday Prayer. “In that case, one could say that there might have been vote-rigging. But how can they rig 11 million votes?”
To vote, all citizens must show their shenasnameh, a wallet-sized folder holding all important documents, including birth certificates and proofs of marriage and divorce. Iranians can visit any polling site they choose to with their shenasnameh, which is why some districts end up with more ballots cast than eligible voters. People with summer or weekend houses, for example, often do not go home to vote.
Polling sites are run by the Interior Ministry and supervised by the Guardian Council, which also adds to the skepticism, since both have expressed their loyalty to the supreme leader and Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Even the conservative speaker of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, who has sided with the supreme leader in support of Mr. Ahmadinejad, acknowledged that skepticism about the vote was wide and deep, unlikely to be dispelled by continued claims of a landslide victory for the president.
“A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced,” Mr. Larijani said in comments broadcast on Iranian television over the weekend.