Tens of thousands of Iranians gathered Thursday in a Tehran square to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution amid high security and unconfirmed reports of new skirmishes between opposition protesters and regime supporters.
The Green Voice opposition website reported Thursday that new clashes had broken out between protesters and police, who it claimed had fired tear gas and water cannons on anti-regime demonstrators. Other opposition reports on the Rahesabz website and elsewhere said that thousands of anti-government protesters had turned out in the streets of Tehran. Rahesabz reported that clashes with security forces broke out where opposition supporters were gathering in Sadeghieh Square.
Reformist leaders attacked
Hossein Karroubi, the son of reformist opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, told journalists that his father's entourage came under attack as it was on its way to Sadeghieh Square and that Karroubi's other son, Ali, had been arrested. Iran's reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, was also attacked on his way to an opposition rally in Tehran and his car window was broken.
Opposition supporters claim to have taken control of some parts of the capital, says FRANCE 24's regional correspondent and Los Angeles Times reporter Borzou Daragahi, reporting from Beirut.
Those reports could not be confirmed due to restrictions on the media coverage of today's events.
Daragahi said the state is also doing its part to inspire pro-regime supporters to counter the protesters themselves.
"Loudspeakers are calling upon people to kill the opposition movement," he said.
Celebrations for the 1979 return from exile of hardline cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began on Monday, an anniversary that has traditionally been a chance for Iranian leaders to showcase popular support for the regime. The climax of celebrations in Tehran’s Azadi (freedom) Square on Thursday – which included a speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – marks the day the US-backed shah fell, after ruling Iran for nearly four decades.
But this year, the regime is facing protests by opposition supporters who continue to reject Ahmadinejad's re-election in a disputed June 12, 2009 poll. The June vote sparked weeks of demonstrations, led in part by Mousavi’s “Green Movement” supporters.
Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Karroubi have refused to give up their claims of fraud – despite the brutal repression of opposition demonstrations – and urged their supporters to turn out en masse during this week’s anniversary.
Mousavi said Tuesday that the Islamic revolution had failed to achieve its goals and that the "roots of tyranny and dictatorship" of the shah’s era still exist in Tehran. In an interview posted on his website Kaleme.org, Mousavi said that present-day Iran was adopting the "attitude of historic tyrant regimes everywhere".
The opposition has been exploiting internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as mobile phone text messaging, to organise rallies and spread news and pictures of its protests.
As the anniversary approached, reports filtered in that internet access in Iran had slowed and that text messaging services had been disrupted. The government is blaming trouble with underground cables, but others cry foul. Iran's telecommunications agency announced Wednesday that it was planning the permanent suspension of Google mail services (via gmail.com) in the country and would soon roll out a national email service.
"Internet access has slowed to a trickle," Daragahi said.
Restrictions on journalists have also been part of the regime's bid to suppress coverage of opposition activities today. “Tehran has not allowed the foreign media to film any other places except freedom square,” Iran analyst Alireza Jafarzadeh told FRANCE 24. He says the few journalists who are being allowed to cover the day's events are carefully monitored, including being escorted to and from the square.
But Jafarzadeh added that, in the era of mobile phones and Twitter, the regime’s precautions will likely fail.
“The pictures – and the video – are going to get out," he said.
In the latest deadly unrest last December, eight people were killed on the holy day of Ashura and hundreds more were jailed as the authorities battled opposition protesters. The deadly crackdown, coming on Shiite Muslims' most sacred day, sparked outrage and underscored the depth of Iran's current crisis.
A 'punch' to the West
The regime’s authorities accuse the demonstrators of siding with Iran's enemies abroad and of seeking to topple the Islamic Republic. They want Thursday's anniversary to be a show of national unity as in past years. For Khomeini's all-powerful successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hopes are high that the day will deliver a stunning "punch" to "arrogant" outside powers.
Khamenei – who has the final say on all key policy issues – supports Ahmadinejad’s re-election and has dismissed allegations of fraud. He blames Western powers for the post-election unrest and continuing dissent, which he has slammed as "sedition".