Iranian security forces used clubs, teargas and paintball guns to disperse thousands of antigovernment protesters in Tehran on Wednesday who took to the streets as thousands of regime loyalists marked the 30th anniversary of the US Embassy takeover in 1979.
While a pro-government crowd chanted anti-American slogans and burned US flags at the walls of the former embassy compound -- still often called the "den of spies" – antigovernment demonstrators were caught in sometimes vicious confrontations at other locations in central Tehran in the first mass protests for six weeks.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the embassy takeover anniversary has been an important event for rallying regime support, so the scale and boldness of the opposition turnout – after weeks of warnings from security officials that any attempt to gather would be harshly confronted—was seen as a test of opposition strength.
"Greens [won] by far. They proved that no longer can the government assemble people without any incident, and [the regime] has based everything since the beginning on [large] public assemblies," said one witness who, like others quoted in this story, asked not be named for security reasons. "Also, if you bring out [security] guards in such numbers, you know you are in deep trouble. The government as expected was scared."
And while the Islamic Republic revitalizes the anti-American pillar of its revolution with a celebration, many of the radical students who took control of the embassy have since become reformist critics.
Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, Iran's most senior dissident cleric who was at one time the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the father of the revolution, said in a statement that the embassy takeover and the holding of 52 American hostages for 444 days was a mistake.
"Considering the negative repercussions and the high sensitivity which was created among the American people and which still exists, it was not the right thing to do," he said. "Some of the revolutionary and committed youth, who were instrumental in that act at the time, now believe that it was a mistake."
US President Barack Obama marked the anniversary of the embassy seizure by saying it had set the US and Iran "on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation. Iran must choose. We have heard for 30 years what the Iranian government is against; the question, now, is what kind of future is it for?"
Violence erupted last June after a disputed election result that reinstated President Ahmadinejad for a second term. Supporters of challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called the result a fraud, took their "Green Movement" to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, and were put down during several weeks of unrelenting force that left scores dead.
Widening scope of protests
The protests were once limited in scope to reversing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declared landslide victory in June. But they have expanded in their demands to target the Islamic system led by supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei himself, and incorporate a host of complaints from the economy to strict social rules.
On Wednesday, that witness saw trash dumpsters set aflame on two main Tehran avenues, tear gas assaults and arrests. Riot police and ideological basij militiamen would "lead people into side streets [and] start hitting [them] right there and then," he said.
Other witnesses at other flashpoints in the Iranian capital said opposition turnout was lower than the last mass protest six weeks ago, when green-clad demonstrators hijacked official Jerusalem Day ceremonies, and that this time regime enforcers were more violent.
"Today was crazy … they kept attacking with paintball guns!" said one witness north of Haft-e Tir Square, who observed attacks by three roving groups of riot policemen, two each on 20 motorcycles, clad in plastic "Robocop"-style body armor and armed with tear gas and paintball guns.
Paintball guns were used to mark selected protestors for arrest during June protests, but witnesses on Wednesday said they appeared to employed as a non-lethal form of intimidation. The pellets from these guns typically bruise and sometimes cause bleeding when they strike unprotected skin.
"They found a nice target [and] that was anyone; they just started firing," said this witness, a well-educated professional. "For the first time people were actually sticking together and not running away, but saying, 'let's hold out, let's hold out.'"
"Mostly it was women being hit because I saw a lot of the women pass me, [dozens] of women pass me, all of which had been hit; older women who had taken paintball hits to the chest and legs and were covered in orange paint," said the witness. "Every time they went at the crowd, everybody booed."
"I wouldn't say it's a victory, but it's not a loss. There was definitely a message put out there," said this witness. "It was important that everyday people in their cars [and] businesses, got to see that women were being attacked by people with batons and [paint] guns. And they get to smell tear gas for the first time."
"It's horrible to call that a victory, but the ugliness is something to [behold]," he said.
Senior officials of the Islamic Republic call the protests "illegal" and alleged they were fomented by the US and the West to undermine the regime. They have accused Mr. Mousavi, a former prime minister, and fellow presidential candidate and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who was reported injured on Wednesday in a direct tear gas attack while joining the protests, of treason.
Delivering the keynote speech at the official rally prominent conservative politician Gholamali Hadadadel said these men could not consider themselves "disciples of Imam Khomeini" because their statements were "making the enemies of the revolution happy."
He also reinforced the anti-American message from Ayatollah Khamenei on Tuesday and said that Barack Obama's overtures toward Iran were not matched with actions.
One observer of the official event outside the walls of the former US Embassy said the rally—which traditionally includes black-clad students wearing headbands with messages supporting the regime, bussed in to wave banners—was larger than in most years, but not particularly enthusiastic.
"Like usual," he said, "school kids busy with their mischievous fun—not even listening."
Security was tightest around that old embassy compound, where chants of "Death to America!" rang throughout the morning. But not far beyond that tight cordon, protesters sought to gather in their own show of force.
One witness heard the chant: "Khamenei is a murderer; supreme religious rule is over" and protestors trampled a banner-size portrait of Khamenei that was laid on the street. This witness watched plainclothes men on motorcycles chase people down in his neighborhood of Abbas Abad. He said he heard shots fired, though he didn't know if they were bullets, tear gas canisters being launched or paintball rounds.
Later he said: "I am hopeful as a whole," about prospects for the longevity of the opposition movement, which on Wednesday had difficulty overcoming cut mobile phone connections and text messaging services and slow internet.
But cell phone videos that did emerge of the protests and clashes showed groups of several hundred dispersing and regrouping, as they were attacked by security forces. All witnesses contacted yesterday said the opposition would not disappear.
"I expected violence, but the violence exceeded my expectations," said one women not far from the US Embassy, on Taleghani Avenue. "I thought it would be milder." She saw riot police wearing body armor and basiji militiamen, all on motorcycles and some using electric tasers, attacking "very violently" the mixed crowd of protesters.
This witness said she was "satisfied" with the opposition turnout, and added: "I feel more hopeful about the future of the movement."
Said another witness in Tehran: "It will continue, 100 percent. Be certain [of that]."