TEHRAN, Iran - Hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heading for a surprise landslide with nearly 80 percent of votes counted in Iran's stormy presidential elections, the Interior Ministry said today. But his pro-reform rival countered that he was the clear victor and accused authorities of fraud.
The dispute sharply boosted tensions, raising the possibility of a standoff after an intense monthlong race between the combative president and his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is backed by a growing youth-oriented movement. A large turnout at the polls had boosted victory hopes for Mousavi supporters.
At a press conference around midnight, Mousavi declared himself "definitely the winner" based on "all indications from all over Iran." He accused the Islamic ruling establishment of "manipulating the people's vote" to keep Ahmadinejad in power and suggested the reformist camp would stand up to challenge the results.
"It is our duty to defend people's votes. There is no turning back," Mousavi said, alleging widespread irregularities.
Before dawn today, Tehran's streets were deserted, but there were worries of protests by Mousavi supporters if he is declared the loser. Bringing any showdown into the streets would certainly face a swift backlash from security forces. The political chief of the powerful Revolutionary Guard cautioned Wednesday it would crush any "revolution" against the Islamic regime by Mousavi's "green movement."
The Interior Ministry banned all rallies until after the formal announcement of results today. A series of cyber-strikes - blackouts of text messaging, blocks on pro-Mousavi Web sites and widespread Internet disruptions - also raised worries that authorities were prepared to exert further pressures on the communications lifelines of the rejuvenated reformist movement.
Moments after Mousavi's news conference, Iran's state news agency IRNA reported Ahmadinejad the winner. For a few hours after, Ahmadinejad supporters weaved through Tehran's streets on motorbikes shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great."
The messy and tense outcome capped a long day of voting. It was extended for several hours to accommodate a huge turnout that had people waiting for hours at polling stations in blistering heat and nighttime downpours.
Mousavi, a 1980s-era prime minister, was counting on an outpouring from what's been called his "green tsunami" - the signature color of his campaign and the new banner for reformists seeking wider liberties at home and a gentler face for Iran abroad. He raised hopes that a new leadership might embrace President Barack Obama's invitation to open dialogue and take a less confrontation path with the West over Iran's nuclear program.
The heavy turnout was expected to help Mousavi. So the Interior Ministry's partial results overwhelmingly favoring Ahmadinejad came as a surprise.
By early today, Ahmadinejad had 64.9 percent and Mousavi had 32.6 percent with 78 percent of all votes counted, said Kamran Daneshjoo, a senior official with the Interior Ministry, which oversees the voting.
Based on figures released by the ministry, around 75 percent of the 46.2 million eligible voters went to the polls.
Mousavi appealed to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to intervene and stop what he said were violations of the law. Khamenei holds ultimate political authority in Iran. "I hope the leader's foresight will bring this to a good end," Mousavi said.
Mousavi said some polling stations were closed early with people still waiting to vote, that voters were prevented from casting ballots and that his observers were expelled from some counting sites.
Authorities "should not assume that by manipulating people's vote and staying in power for a day, for a year or two, (they) can win people's satisfaction," he said.
During the voting, some communications across Iran were disrupted. Internet connections slowed dramatically in some spots, hindering the operations of news organizations including The Associated Press. It was not immediately clear what had caused the disruptions.
About a dozen Ahmadinejad supporters pelted a Mousavi office in Tehran with tear gas canisters, but no one was injured, said Saeed Shariati, head of Mousavi's Web campaign. The attack could not be independently confirmed.
Iran does not allow international election monitors. During the 2005 election, when Ahmadinejad won the presidency, there were some allegations of vote rigging from losers, but the claims were never investigated.
Iran's ruling clerics put their stamp on the elections from the very beginning by deciding who can run.