Iran opposition protests fizzle in face of overwhelming security
Iran protesters had hoped to press their demands for reform on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, but massive regime security measures kept protests mostly bottled up.
Iranians marked the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution on Thursday with a mass pro-government rally and an overwhelming security presence that prevented opposition protesters from staging a long-expected showdown.Skip to next paragraph
Police clashed episodically with protesters at several points in Tehran, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that Iranian scientists had boosted uranium enrichment levels from 3.5 percent to 20 percent in a matter of days, confirming that Iran was now a “nuclear power.”
But witnesses and analysts in Tehran said the 31st birthday party of the Islamic Republic belonged to the government, despite gaps in the rally-goers at Freedom Square, who were among the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who turned out across the country to wave flags and chant “Death to America.”
The vehicles carrying opposition figures Mehdi Karroubi and former President Mohammad Khatami – two of the three high-ranking leaders of the Green Movement – were attacked by pro-regime militants, forcing them to turn back.
“Today was a show of force by the establishment, and they were really prepared for it: They had enough time, they had enough information,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran, who had not seen such a heavy police and security presence on the streets since the early 1980s.
“They were really prepared to stop people gathering, and they did it,” says the analyst, who asked not to be named. “It’s easy, if you have the numbers and guns and motivation, and the other side is disorganized and leaderless and has no training.”
“There was layer upon layer of their forces between us,” said one protester contacted in Tehran. “At the same time, it was impossible to understand who was who: The guy next to you might be wiping the sweat on his brow with a [distinctive basiji militia] scarf, and when you looked at him intently, he’d smile and you would know he was a Green in disguise.”
During the day, the rumor mill buzzed with false reports of clashes more serious than they turned out to be. Activists had set a high standard after violent street battles at the end of December to mark the Shiite religious commemoration of Ashura left at least eight dead.
“Anything significant had to be bigger than Ashura, and this was nothing even compared to the quietest day,” said one observer in Tehran sympathetic to the opposition.
The government has effectively limited coordination and communication among the opposition, he says, and has reacted violently – including executing two it charged with pro-democracy crimes two weeks ago, and lining up nine protesters on death row.
After the Ashura clashes, attempts to lower tensions by opposition leaders like former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi – who says Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory in elections last June should have been his – were seen as weak by some and wise by others.
“I think the movement has changed form, and they just don’t want to accept it,” says the Tehran observer. “The leadership were slow to move. Now people have moved beyond these guys, they have seen their inaction and I think they won’t put up with it anymore.”
Expectations had grown about the anniversary, which marks the day in 1979 when the military forces of the pro-West Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi finally capitulated and 2,500 years of monarchy were overthrown. Every year, Iranians of all stripes take to the streets on this day, in a national day of celebration and – for many pro-regime supporters – a renewal of anti-American and anti-Israeli fervor with slogans and speeches.
Ahmadinejad declared that the “inhumane Western system” was coming to an end, and that Iran’s enemies “have no chance of victory.”