The Iranian regime stage-managed a huge show of popular support yesterday to demonstrate it had the upper hand in a trial of strength with the opposition as the country marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Tehran was flooded with security forces who used tear gas and batons against opposition protesters pledged to mark the most important day in the Iranian calendar with mass anti-government demonstrations.
Plainclothes Basij militiamen clubbed Zahra Rehnavard, the charismatic 65-year-old wife of the opposition's main leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, while he was prevented from joining a rally, his website reported. She was whisked away by supporters who formed a human shield around her. The opposition's two other main leaders, Mehdi Karrubi, a septuagenarian cleric, and Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, were also attacked, although neither was hurt.
The granddaughter of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the US-backed Shah, was briefly detained. The president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, used the occasion to declare that Iran is now a "nuclear state" - a day after Washington targeted elements of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards with fresh sanctions. Mr Ahmadinejad told a crowd of hundreds of thousands of cheering, flag-waving, pro-government supporters in Azadi (Freedom) Square that Iran has produced its first batch of higher-grade nuclear fuel and would soon treble such output - just two days after beginning the process.
His claims, which are unverified, were a message of defiance to the West and an apparent attempt to ensure he grabbed the headlines rather than the protesters gathering less than a mile from where he was speaking. The regime has tried to bludgeon the opposition into submission rather than negotiate with its leaders, who are loyal to the Islamic system but want democratic reforms. To prevent a repeat of the mass protests mounted by the opposition on previous key dates in Iran's calendar, the regime this time relied on pre-emptive repression, backed up yesterday by one of its biggest displays of security muscle in years.
Scores of students, journalists, human rights campaigners and women's rights activists have been arrested in recent weeks. Mobile telephone, internet and text messaging systems were disrupted in an attempt to prevent protest organisers from mobilising on what is officially a day of national unity. An opposition website said security forces fired shots and tear gas at supporters of Mr Mousavi, whom millions of Iranians believe was the winner of last June's disputed elections. Dozens of hardliners with batons and pepper spray attacked Mr Karrubi's convoy as he tried to join the protests, one of his sons, Hossein, said.
His car windscreen was smashed but his bodyguards - one of whom was seriously injured ? managed to pack him safely away in a passing car. Mr Karrubi's other son, Ali, was reportedly arrested. Security forces also briefly detained Ayatollah Khomeini's granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi, and her husband Mohammad Reza Khatami, who are both senior pro-reform politicians, an opposition website reported. While the couple was held for less than an hour, it was one of the most high-profile detentions by the authorities since June's disputed re-election of Mr Ahmadinejad. Mr Khatami is the brother of Iran's reformist former president.
It is embarrassing for the regime, which claims Ayatollah Khomeini's mantle, that his family believe his real heirs are the opposition's leaders. Hassan Khomeini, the Ayatollah's grandson, backed Mr Mousavi in June's election. Opposition leaders had called for peaceful demonstrations and urged their supporters not to chant slogans against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has staunchly backed Mr Ahmadinejad. Even so, some protesters trying to march towards Azadi Square chanted "Death to the Dictator", an opposition website reported. They were dispersed by security forces using tear gas while helicopters clattered overhead.
Riot police also fired paintballs to mark people for arrest. A "large number" of protesters had been detained, another opposition website said. Mobile phone footage showed an opposition protest on the Tehran metro and there were reports of protests in Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz and other cities. Given a government ban on reporters covering any protests, it was impossible to gauge the size of the opposition turnout, although protesters were apparently greatly outnumbered by regime supporters.
An unspecified number of pro-democracy activists had, however, clearly taken to the streets despite threats of reprisals by the authorities - evidence that the opposition remains resilient and resolved. But it was impossible immediately to tell whether yesterday's anniversary marked a turning point that each side had predicted would tip the balance of power in its favour. Analysts said if opposition protesters were allowed to assemble freely, they could mount a far bigger show of popular support than the turnout orchestrated by the regime yesterday. Those attending state-sponsored rallies are often bussed in to Tehran free of charge from outlying areas and given free meals.
Confident that security forces had sealed Azadi Square from protesters, Mr Ahmadinejad was in characteristically uncompromising mood. Iran, he trumpeted, had produced its first consignment of uranium enriched to 20 per cent and has "the capability to enrich uranium to much higher levels". Iran has previously purified the fuel to just 3.5 per cent, the grade required for a nuclear power plant. Iran says it moved to produce 20 per cent enriched uranium for a Tehran research reactor producing urgently-needed medical isotopes out of frustration to reach agreement on a nuclear fuel exchange deal with world powers.
But the West says Tehran is not capable of turning the material into the fuel rods needed for the reactor and fears the process will accelerate the Islamic republic's ability to make bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Mr Ahmadinejad repeated Iran's position that the Islamic republic has no intention of building a nuclear weapon. "The Iranian nation is brave enough that if one day we wanted to build nuclear bombs we would announce it publicly without being afraid of you," he said, addressing western powers.
But, goading Iran's enemies and fuelling their suspicions about his country's nuclear ambitions, he implied that Iran has the ability to build nuclear bombs. "When we say that we don't build nuclear bombs, it means that we don't do that because we don't believe in having it." He told the crowd in Azadi Square - where men, women and children carried banners reading: "Death to America, Death to Israel" - that Iran's enemies were using the nuclear issue and that of human rights to dominate the region. And he lashed out at Barack Obama, the US president, who he said was "missing opportunities" and serving the interests of Israel.
The US treasury department on Wednesday announced it would freeze the assets of a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, as well as four subsidiaries of a construction company he runs. The move followed Iran's announcement at the weekend that it would produce its own 20 per cent enriched uranium. France accused Iran of trying to "blackmail" the international community into accepting on Tehran's terms a uranium fuel-swap deal brokered by the UN in October.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard are said to manage the country's nuclear programme and are overseeing the harsh suppression of pro-democracy protesters. By targeting one of its leaders, Washington signalled that its aim is to punish the elite force, not the Iranian people. firstname.lastname@example.org