TEHRAN, Iran — As another day of defiance, concessions and ominous threats transfixed Iran's capital, it was clear on Thursday that there was no clear path out of a deepening confrontation that has threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the 30-year old Islamic political system and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The situation had all the hallmarks of a standoff. Hundreds of thousands of silent protesters flooded into the streets in what witnesses said may have been the largest demonstration yet in days of massive protests. They roared a welcome to their champion, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate for president whose reported defeat by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's election touched off the crisis.
Iran's leaders offered conciliation while simultaneously wielding repression.
With one hand, the government offered to talk to the opposition, inviting the three losing presidential candidates to meet with the powerful Guardian Council. That marked a continuing retreat from Khamenei's initial insistence that the election results were accurate, but many Iranians saw the offer as an effort to buy time and shield the supreme leader from public accountability.
The Guardian Council is loyal to Khamenei, and was responsible for validating the election in the first place.
Even Ahmadinejad, who has kept a defiant if low profile, made an unusual public concession. After insulting the huge crowds who poured into the street by dismissing them as "dust," the president issued a statement on state television, according to the Associated Press:
"I only addressed those who made riot, set fires and attacked people. Every single Iranian is valuable. The government is at everyone's service. We like everyone."
But the government continued to arrest prominent reformers, limit Internet access and pressure reporters to stay off the streets. Riot police tore through Tehran University, and security officials signaled their waning tolerance.
It was not clear whether Iran's government was pursuing a calculated strategy or whether the moves reflected internal disagreements or even uncertainty.
Khamenei to speak
Today could offer important clues. Khamenei is scheduled to lead the national prayer service from Tehran University. Political analysts said that they hope that the leader will reveal his ultimate intent, indicating a willingness either to appease the opposition or to demand an end to protests.
There was some speculation that a compromise is possible, with reformers being given positions in a new government. But it is unclear whether that would be acceptable to the opposition, which understands that in Iran, positions do not necessarily come with power. From 1997 to 2005, a reform-oriented president, Muhammad Khatami, saw his agenda stifled by the religious leadership and its allies.
"This could have had a very easy political solution, and that would have been canceling the election, but they have refused to do that so far," said Mashala Shamsolvabzin, a political analyst in Tehran. "Postponing the resolution means they want the military to find the solutions."
On Thursday, the opposition remained firm in its call for a new election, and it was not immediately clear how it would respond to the council's offer of talks. The meeting would include Mousavi and two other candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai.
Mousavi has indicated in the past that he does not trust the Guardian Council, because some of its members campaigned on behalf of Ahmadinejad before the elections.
Nor was it clear what role was being played by another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who supported Mousavi and is in a power struggle with Khamenei. On Thursday there were unconfirmed reports that two of his children had been banned from leaving the country because of their role in helping the protesters.
Support for the system?
As the streets filled with protesters for yet another day, Khamenei appeared to be arguing that even in this crisis, everyone supported the system over which he holds ultimate power.
"The friendly atmosphere that existed before the elections should not turn into an atmosphere of conflict and confrontation after the vote because both groups of voters believe in the system," he was quoted as saying in the English-language Iran Daily newspaper.
But the streets told a different story -- not one of confidence in the system, but rage. Starting about 4 p.m., thousands of people began gathering in Tehran's Imam Khomeini Square. The crowd quickly grew to hundreds of thousands, stretching beyond the borders of the square and filling the surrounding streets, witnesses said. The protest seemed even larger than Monday's, which were the largest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
At one point, a car drove into the thick of the demonstration, and Mousavi, wearing a black shirt and suit, and his wife stood on top of their vehicle to roars of approval.