By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 11, 2010; 3:17 PM
TEHRAN -- Hundreds of thousands of government supporters massed Thursday in central Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, while a heavy deployment of security forces largely prevented protesters from using the occasion to stage opposition rallies.
The protesters were met by unusually large security forces, which closed off streets and cut access to groups of opposition supporters to the central avenue and square where the anniversary was celebrated. Witnesses reported clashes in the Sadeghiyeh neighborhood, where opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi tried to join the rallies.
He was forced to leave when security forces affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard Corps used tear gas to disperse crowds. The windows of his car were smashed by plainclothes members of a paramilitary unit, witnesses said.
Revolutionary Guard special forces, clad in olive uniforms and black ski masks, carried assault rifles as they directed groups of soldiers, and there were unconfirmed reports of shootings. A spokesman for Karroubi said that a tear gas grenade exploded in front of the former speaker of parliament and that his eyesight was damaged.
International media representatives were prevented from freely covering the rally and were placed in a special area surrounded by government supporters holding up posters showing Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the Ahmadinejad government has attempted to choke off the flow of information within Iran, adding, "It is clear . . . the Iranian government fears its own people."
The spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said he had seen reports that Iran's telephone network, text messaging, satellite television and the Internet had all been jammed. "It would appear that Iran has attempted a near total information blockade," he said. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Google and other Internet service providers had been "unplugged" in Iran.
Opposition activists and Web sites nevertheless reported that plainclothes agents beat an opposition leader's wife with batons during Thursday's demonstrations and that security forces briefly detained the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic revolution, along with her husband. There was no immediate official comment on the alleged beating of Zahra Rahnavard, 65, the wife of former opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, or on the detention of Zahra Eshraghi and her husband, Mohammad Reza Khatami, both prominent reformists. The couple were held for less than an hour before being released, news agencies reported.
The opposition Web site Kaleme said protesters who tried to march toward Azadi Square while waving green flag and chanting, "Death to the dictator," were dispersed by volleys of tear gas fired by security forces. A number of protesters were arrested, Kaleme said.
"What problems do the anti-government protesters have in the Islamic Republic?" asked Zahra Farahani, a government supporter who came by bus from the Shiite holy city of Qom. "There are no problems here. They are influenced by foreigners and must return to the path of our dear leader," she said as girls around her waved Iran's green, white and red flag.
Dozens of paratroopers descended from the blue winter sky, long Iranian flags attached to their parachutes. On one of the streets leading to the central Azadi Square, a Safir rocket, used to launch Iranian satellites, was put on display.
Even at the square, the heart of the rally, security measures were tight. Government supporters were divided over several areas cordoned off with walls made of scaffolding.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed reelection victory triggered the protests in June, declared in a nationally televised address at Azadi Square that Iran has made progress in producing higher-grade enriched uranium. He vowed that he would not let the West bully Iran into curtailing its nuclear program, which he insisted was for peaceful purposes.
He charged that Western moves to curb the nuclear program were a pretext for efforts to dominate the region.
"Iran is a great nation, and they oppose this greatness," he said in the speech, which lasted more than an hour. "Through divine providence, the time for the West is up, and this inhuman stain will be wiped off."
Ahmadinejad also criticized President Obama, calling his approach to Iran "disappointing." He said the U.S. president is "losing his chance" to differentiate himself from his predecessor and is "not acting properly."
As Iran's opposition movement attempted to take to the streets Thursday after having made little concrete progress in eight months of protests, it faced a choice between the relatively cautious path set by its leaders and the radical course advocated by some members.
Opposition leaders Karroubi and Mousavi, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential election, say the demonstrations are about staying true to the ideals of the Islamic Republic and fully implementing the nation's constitution. But many protesters, frustrated by the government's uncompromising stance and continuing crackdown, are calling for the complete downfall of the 31-year-old system of clerical rule.
The anti-government rallies planned to coincide with Thursday's state-sponsored demonstrations were seen as potentially the last opportunity for the opposition to stage a large protest for at least several months. Some within the movement say the chance to change Iran is slipping away.
"There could be 2 million people demonstrating against the government. What difference does it really make? The government has marginalized such events in the past. They ignore all demands," said one political analyst, who declined to be named for fear of being arrested. "After Thursday's protest, many people will draw the conclusion: What is the use of risking lives?"
On the eve of the demonstration, the Iranian government said it would permanently suspend Google's e-mail service in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. There was no immediate confirmation in Tehran or from Google. State Department officials also could not confirm the report, but one official said the move did not appear to be in response to U.S. efforts to sanction Iranian businesses. Users of Google's Gmail have experienced periodic service disruptions in recent weeks. But Iranian officials have blamed those disruptions on severed cable lines, while also advocating for a national e-mail service.
Google spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement, "We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic, and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly."
Heading into Thursday's rally, some protesters said it was time for new tactics. "We know there should be no violence, but how many times can we allow ourselves to be beaten?" said Parisa, a protester who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used.
Mousavi and Karroubi have appealed in statements and in interviews for the protests to remain peaceful and for demonstrators not to shout slogans against Khamenei. "What binds this movement is the demand for free elections, free media and respect for civil rights," Karroubi said in a statement last week.
The opposition leaders say Iran's constitution guarantees civil rights that are being violated by the nation's rulers. If the movement goes beyond those demands, it will be "stabbing in the dark," Mousavi said in an interview on his own Web site last week in which he emphasized respect for the constitution.
Mousavi also demanded the release of all political prisoners. The courts responded by handing down death sentences against 10 protesters, after two men were hanged last month for their alleged involvement in street clashes. On Wednesday, several people were arrested, a top police commander said, adding to the hundreds who have been detained. Just in recent weeks, at least 12 journalists and dozens of activists have been taken into custody.
The opposition movement "is like a car driving down a steep mountain. There are no brakes and there is no control," said Abbas Abdi, an analyst and former newspaper editor. The protesters "say that Mousavi's and Karroubi's methods have failed. They have lost control over the steering wheel."
But Hamid Jalaeipour, a professor of sociology at the University of Tehran who supports the opposition, said that only a small group of protesters wants to bring down Iran's top leaders.
"The ideals of the Islamic revolution are very important for most of the opposition supporters," he said. "This is about a fight against tyranny, not about bringing down the entire system."
Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.