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.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Pro-government Iranian demonstrators attend a rally at the Azadi (Freedom) Sq. in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, commemorating the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
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Chart: Iran claims new uranium enrichment success

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.

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.”

"Superpower bully"

“I’m officially announcing that the era of superpower bullying has come to an end in the world,” he said, according to a live English translation by state-run PressTV. “We oppose your management method … we oppose your bullying.”

Iran’s hard-line president kept his 75-minute speech firmly focused on enemies outside Iran, and on his claims of Iran’s new nuclear achievement. He spoke little of the internal crisis that has gripped the Islamic Republic for eight months.

Sources in Tehran said many active opposition supporters who had taken to the streets during Ashura, and fought pitched battles with police and militiamen then, had left town before the anniversary day for trips to the Caspian Sea, or simply stayed at home, rather than risk pointless injury or death.

“They say that it is becoming too dangerous,” says the observer, who was aware of 20 people who had left Tehran. “The slow process, slow progress, is taking its toll. People figured if this is going to be [violent, it’s] not worth it. They are waiting for the day when their participation would finish the whole thing.”

“I’m going to give this some time,” adds the observer, noting that he expects more underground action like vandalism, violence, and even possibly assassinations of regime figures. “I’ve heard … that guns are more readily available now.”

The opposition Green Movement has always been a big tent, which includes a spectrum of opponents to the regime, who often have very different ideas about what steps they should take. A gathering of young Iranians the night before the anniversary, says the analyst who was present, included one “hotheaded radical who thought tomorrow is the day of victory.” But also among them was a man “who has given up, who says this is leading us nowhere, it’s a dead end.”

No victory

In this context, expectations were high. “They had built it up so much by calling earlier [protest] days big victories, huge victories, giving the impression that it’s only a few steps – ‘c’mon people!’ – it’s just a few small steps and we are there,” says the analyst. “Given that mentality, of course it was a disappointment.”

He says statements after Ashura by opposition leaders to calm both sides were wise. “Given the state of escalation that we were in after Ashura, it was to inject some sense and do something to bring down the tensions and make people think twice about where we are standing,” adds the analyst.

He says he understands the letdown among opposition supporters, but says that early successes led to “too much optimism and wishful thinking,” and confusion between “wishes and realities.”

Lack of coordination among protesters

Every opposition leader called for a massive turnout on Thursday, and security forces took no chances. “The Emergency section of Tehran’s Moayeri Hospital was under the supervision of intelligence and 50 policemen,” said Saeed Pakniat, an Iranian exile in Turkey who spoke with a friend in Tehran. “All patients were also banned from leaving the hospital.”

Opposition videotape showed protesters walking on the streets, but usually in small groups no larger than several hundred or more. Several Tehran residents reported trying to find protests to join, at several points in the capital, but could not.

“It looks like a mess because people were prevented from going near [IRIB state broadcasting] or Evin Prison, and the clips show such a huge lack of coordination and street-level leadership,” said Setareh Sabety, a writer in France working on the semiotics of YouTube coverage of the uprising. “The students that seemed to do the organizing are now all in jail.”

* Iason Athanasiadis contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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