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A swearing-in in Tehran, a diplomatic controversy in Washington

White House spokesman Gibbs retracts reference to Ahmadinejad as "elected leader."

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to members of parliament during his swearing-in ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 5, 2009. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came out flailing at the West during his inauguration on Wednesday as a White House spokesman touched off a diplomatic crisis with Iran by retracting an earlier statement referring to the controversial Iranian leader as that country’s “elected leader."

“Let me correct a little bit of what I said yesterday,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “I denoted that Mr Ahmadinejad was the elected leader of Iran … Whether any election was fair, obviously the Iranian people still have questions about that, and we'll let them decide about that.”

Washington’s about-face may complicate the release of three Americans detained on the Iran-Iraq border earlier this week.

“It was complicated enough as it was and this will make it even more complicated now,” said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. “It’s different if the U.S. had diplomatic relations and could follow the case on the ground but now it’s even more handicapped than when European nationals are stuck in jail in Iran.” Helicopters buzzed today over the Majles, the Iranian parliament, as Ahmadinejad completed the second leg of his inauguration by blasting a depleted audience of parliamentarians with a combative speech. As security forces fought street battles with protesters outside, Ahmadinejad’s address set the tone for a campaign of retribution against his political enemies, proving he is a tenacious political survivor.

“They (Westerners) are interested in democracy only as long as it serves their interests,” Ahmadinejad said, speaking in the cavernous Iranian parliament to roars of encouragement from the assembled representatives. “They don’t respect the opinions and rights of peoples.”

Thousands of security forces, some of them little more than hastily added youth recruits to the Bassij militia, locked down the area around the Iranian parliament, violently moving on pedestrians over a one-kilometer range.

Cellphone camera videos circulating on opposition websites showed crowds ascending dark metro escalators shouting “Death to the Dictator” but neither buses nor the metro was making stops at Baharestan with commuters forced to get out before or after. Fearing coordination between groups of protesters or cellphone-activated bombs, all phone networks were disabled. Bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the area. At the entrance to Tehran’s labyrinthine Bazaar and in the sidestreets around the parliament, plainclothes intelligence agents mixed in among protesters. Militiamen and gawkers roared around the area on their motorbikes, waiting for the protests to begin.

Short videos shot by participants on mobile phones showed ragged crowds lingering along sidewalks or being moved violently along by state agents wearing surgery masks to obscure their identity. The security services appeared to control all avenues and squares, frustrating protesters’ efforts to coalesce into a crowd. No demonstration materialized despite reports, which are unverified, that demonstrators set fire to a police kiosk, attacked several Bassiji militiamen.