Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday slammed President Barack Obama's reconciliation efforts as insincere, as security forces and antigovernment protesters braced for a showdown Nov. 4 – the 30th anniversary of the US Embassy seizure by militant students.
"The new president of the US ...[sent] messages repeatedly – verbal, written – [saying] come, let us turn the page, come let us create a new situation," Ayatollah Khamenei told a group of students. "Now eight months have passed [and] what we saw was opposite to what they have expressed in words.... The American government is a really arrogant power and the Iranian nation will not be deceived with its apparent reconciliatory behavior."
The battleground between the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the reformist opposition that has rejected his June reelection as fraudulent will shift Wednesday to the brick-walled compound of the US Embassy. Its storming in 1979 by students, and their holding hostage 52 diplomats for 444 days, launched three decades of mutual hostility between the US and Iran.
At the time, the father of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, heralded the takeover as a "second revolution, greater than the first." The anniversary has been traditionally marked with chants of "Death to America" and the burning of US and Israeli flags.
But this year, Iran is still reeling from the aftermath of the June 12 vote, which plunged the Islamic Republic into its most severe crisis of authority since the revolution. More than 72 people died in violent clashes, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians wearing the opposition color of green protested President Ahmadinejad's declared victory.
Reformist websites have called for a peaceful and silent "sit-in" in the streets surrounding the US Embassy; some others have called for a gathering outside the Russian Embassy. Rumors in Tehran suggest that Iran's ideological Basij militia – who have boasted that they will bring 3 million onto the streets – will lay siege to the British Embassy, which has been repeatedly accused by hard-liners of fomenting the post-election violence.
The showdown marks a critical juncture for Iran's opposition movement, which has been largely pushed out of public view by repressive government measures. They'll take to the streets for the first time in six weeks Wednesday.
"Tomorrow will be important – Greens will see how well they have managed to hold [popular support]," says one close observer, contacted in Tehran, who could not be identified for security reasons. "I think this is decisive....
"They need to see each other again," the observer says, adding that a large turnout could make them " feel comfortable about their path."
Opposition underground – but active
Arrests of 4,000 Iranians, mass trials of some 140 reformist activists charged on national security offenses, torture in detention, and charges of rape have forced the opposition underground. But it remains active. Antigovernment graffiti has surged across Iran, though witnesses say that in the capital, regime loyalists swiftly cover it with black paint. Banknotes have been inscribed with antigovernment slogans, prompting a complaint from the governor of the central bank.
Ahead of the Nov. 4 anniversary, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia under their command called on Iranians to "exercise vigilance" in the face of likely "mischief and plots by the enemy's agents." Police warned that any "illegal" gatherings would be "strongly confronted."
Undeterred, the opposition has sought to overcome such efforts to bar protests.
From reformist websites to Twitter messages to videos by dissidents and Iranian-Americans in the US, the opposition has worked for weeks to encourage a large turnout at Wednesday's rally.
They've published a list of slogans – some of which will be written in English for maximum impact in Washington. They include digs at Mr. Obama for attempting to negotiate with the current government, which some Iranians view as a betrayal.
"Obama, Obama, you are either with them or with us," is one slogan. Another: "Obama don't forget; Ahmadinejad is a killer."
Since the election, websites supporting defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have taught followers that they each must spread the word themselves, telling them "you are the media."
They also got help with an inadvertent advertisement from hard-line Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who warned against "exploiting Nov. 4 rallies" in a nationally televised sermon last month.
A Twitter response from "Ramin" was grateful: "Hey Jannati, thanks for the free publicity! You told WAY more ppl about [Nov. 4] than the Greens could!"
But such reactions from senior regime figures give more than publicity; they give the opposition encouragement that their actions are having an impact.
"The opposition think that since the government is showing reaction to their attempts, they are winning," says the observer in Tehran. "This is true to an extent – reaction is what this is all about."
What about the next stage?
While the opposition is well-organized, the trouble is how to take their fight to the next stage, says Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "They are letting Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and the others just continue to make mistakes."
Among those are officials' continued uncompromising stance against the protests, and mixed messages to the US and the West on both engagement and a possible nuclear deal.
Police warned again on Tuesday against using the anniversary to revive mass street protests, and that "only anti-American rallies" in front of the old US Embassy building would be allowed.
But more bloodshed could be a double-edged sword.
"The tougher they appear, the more polarized Iranian society becomes, the more stubborn the opposition becomes, and the more persistent it becomes," says Mr. Ansari. Likewise, "the longer the opposition exists, the more difficult it is for them. It's political guerrilla warfare, a war of attrition."
Opposition activists hope to repeat their Al-Quds Day success of Sept. 18, when Mousavi supporters filtered into marches meant to show Iran's solidarity with oppressed Palestinians, then surprised each other – and regime enforcers – with their large numbers when they revealed their green symbols and antigovernment chants.
It was an embarrassment for the regime. State broadcasters were forced to stop their TV coverage or to limit their field of vision to minimize scenes of green.
While opposition activists are directing some fire toward both Obama and the nuclear issue, their main priority is reversing Ahmadinejad's tainted victory.
"Imam Khomeini's movement was based on fighting arrogance on two fronts – domestic and foreign," one of the opposition organizers in Tehran told a local source who can't be named. "He first dealt with the domestic arrogance before he attended to the foreign. You cannot fight evil while you are infested with it yourself."
Hard-line politicians, military officers, and prosecutors led by Khamenei have accused the US and the West of attempting to topple the Islamic regime with a velvet revolution and use of "people power" displayed in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics since 1989.
In a strongly worded statement on Saturday, Mousavi said the anniversary "reminds us that among us, it is the people who are the leaders." On the approaching "greenest day of the year," he said, Iranians will "show the roots of their revolutionary spirit."
The embassy anniversary remains an "epic" in the mind of Mousavi, says former student organizer Ali Afshari, who was imprisoned for years after 1999 unrest and now lives in exile in Washington. Protesters "are aiming to negate a day of anti-Americanism and enmity with the West, and to differentiate their desire for a foreign policy based on the respect and rights of both sides.
But Khamenei warned on Tuesday that nothing would change, despite the post-election violence. "Americans should not lay hope on some post-election events in Iran because our [Islamic] system is more well-rooted than they think it is," he said. "Every time they [US officials] smile at the Iranian officials, it comes with a dagger hidden behind them. They have not stopped intimidating Iran."
•Tara Mahtafar contributed to this report from Washington.