Pro-government demonstrators overshadow opposition in Iran


A huge crowd of government supporters filled Tehran’s Azadi Square on Thursday to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, overshadowing the smaller groups of nearby anti-government protesters confronted by plainclothes and uniformed security forces.

Despite weeks of calls to action, the opposition movement failed to derail the holiday’s agenda set by supporters of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president delivered a defiant keynote speech hailing the government’s recent move to begin producing uranium at 20% purity and condemning the West.

“We must not neglect the power of the Iranian people,” Ahmadinejad said. “Everybody is aware of the fact that our people are capable of influencing the whole of the region by controlling our own sources of energy. We don’t want others to have control over our sources of energy and power.

“Iran must be free. Iran must be powerful. And it must be at the forefront of technology.”

For the opposition, the large pro-government turnout generated concern about the so-called green movement born of Ahmadinejad’s disputed June reelection and the campaigns of opposition figures Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Many opposition supporters are questioning their leadership’s strategy of issuing carefully worded commentaries on the Iranian system and vague calls to action cloaked in religious and nationalistic terminology. Supporters of the movement are beginning to demand stronger leaders with concrete tactical prescriptions and strategic goals.

Ahmadinejad did not walk away untarnished during the rally, which marked the day in 1979 when Iran’s revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared the Islamic Republic.

Protesters could be heard chanting “Death to the dictator!” as Ahmadinejad described Iran’s accomplishments.

And his announcement this week that Iran had begun to further enrich its supply of uranium from 3.5% purity to 20% to provide fuel for an ailing Tehran medical reactor has been dismissed by some nuclear scientists as a political stunt.

Such a move would edge Iran closer to producing highly enriched weapons-grade uranium.

A report issued Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security suggested that Iran’s uranium production is actually slowing, because of technical problems.

A separate report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that was obtained by The Times notes that the agency’s inspectors had yet to see any 20% enriched uranium. Inspectors were told Wednesday that Iran intended to produce the higher-grade uranium “within a few days,” according to the report.

Many analysts speculated that the announcement of progress on uranium enrichment was meant to create an international crisis to unify the country’s fractured political establishment before Thursday’s holiday.

State-controlled television showed people crowded into Azadi Square, some carrying effigies of Western politicians and coffins decorated with the flags of Britain and Israel.

Severe restrictions were placed on journalists in Tehran.

Government supporters declared the day a major success. The pro-government Fars news agency said 50 million of Iran’s 75 million people attended rallies around the country. Government supporters held up twin portraits of revolutionary founder Khomeini and his successor, Khamenei, chanting, “I am ready to sacrifice myself for my beloved leader.”

“The friends and foes of the Iranian nation should keep in mind that this nation has chosen its path and it has made up its mind,” Khamenei was quoted as saying in a message on his website. “To conquer the summit of progress and happiness, it will remove any hurdles on its way.”

There were reports of clashes between protesters and security forces in other Iranian cities, including Mashhad, Esfahan, Ahvaz, Shiraz and Tabriz.

Opposition news websites alleged that security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators north of the square, killing at least one person, a 27-year-old woman, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.

Video showed a security official pummeling an unarmed demonstrator. Another could be seen spraying protesters with pepper gas.

Khomeini’s granddaughter, as well as relatives of Karroubi and Khatami, were briefly detained and released after attending the rallies, opposition websites said. News websites also reported that pro-government militiamen attacked opposition figures at the rally, including Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife.

Many activists were despondent, calling for new approaches in the face of an intensive government campaign against the opposition.

“The green movement and its leadership needs urgently a soul-searching to find a new agenda, tactics and strategy, as the ruling establishment has left no stone unturned to crack down and clamp down,” said one Tehran analyst, a newspaper writer who spoke on condition she not be identified.

Some protesters complained of wandering the streets looking for other opposition supporters, thereby inadvertently contributing to the numbers of the official rally.

“We have made a mistake,” said Iman, a female activist in Tehran.

Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.