Security forces quell opposition protests in Tehran

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 21, 2011; 1:00 AM

TEHRAN - Thousands of Iranian security forces dispersed anti-government demonstrators who tried to gather Sunday in Tehran's main squares to commemorate the deaths of two men killed during a protest Monday, witnesses reported.

Official media denied reports of heavy security presence and minor skirmishes with opposition supporters, stressing that the Iranian capital was calm. But witnesses described large groups of protesters at several locations in the city and a hefty number of security forces armed with clubs, tear gas and Tasers out to thwart them.

"Security forces are hiding their faces behind masks," said an office worker who was reached by telephone during the afternoon. "There are only small clashes and few slogans against the system. Still some main streets are very crowded, both with protesters and just as many security forces."

There were unconfirmed reports of gunshots, and a police commander said a person carrying explosives had been arrested. Some opposition Web sites said two people had been killed, but officials denied the reports. "Such news is totally unfounded, as there was no clash or disturbance in the capital today," said Safarali Baratloo, a security official, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Faezeh Hashemi, a well-known women's rights activist and daughter of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was arrested for "making provocative slogans, encouraging the rioters," the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. She was later released, Fars said. Rafsanjani, one of the country's leading clerics and politicians, has been under pressure recently after hard-liners accused him of being too close to the opposition.

Tehran had braced for violence after opposition groups called for protests Sunday and, in an apparent attempt to discourage protesters, state media warned of possible bloodshed by anti-government demonstrators. Fars reported that teams from the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, a banned opposition group based in Iraq, had entered Iran and planned to shoot people during the protest.

Witnesses reported that riot police were stationed in the city's main squares. In a significant change in tactics, Iran's opposition had called on supporters to occupy important squares across the city, rather than the six-mile-long Enghelab, or Revolution, Street, where they had organized previous marches.

Opposition Web sites said the Sunday demonstration was a success. "The widespread but unconcentrated presence of people on the streets created hassles, disorganization and frustration for police, security and intelligence forces. Thousands of extra police and security forces had to be brought to Tehran to be spread throughout the city," according to the site.

Sahamnews, which is related to the opposition, reported protests in other cities as well, among them Shiraz in central Iran and Mashhad, the second-largest city in the country.

After anti-government rallies last Monday, which appeared to catch authorities by surprise, two prominent opposition leaders were placed under house arrest.

On Saturday, authorities installed a metal door in front of the home of former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, effectively imprisoning him. The move follows calls from religious leaders and paramilitary organizations, as well as a majority of parliament, that he and Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition leader, be executed.

Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament, said Saturday that he welcomed any court case against him. "In a just and open trial session, the public will discover the truth," he said in a statement smuggled out of his house, Sahamnews reported.

This weekend two key Iranian leaders spoke out against the use of violence by other Middle Eastern governments that are also grappling with pro-democracy demonstrations.

Officials in Iran say the demonstrations in the country are being organized by the United States, and they view cracking down on the opposition movement as a way to combat the influence of Western powers. But Iran's leaders regard the protests in other regional countries as signs of Islamic revolutions.

"Do not resist the rightful demands of your nations," Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi said Saturday, urging Arab nations to use their weapons to protect their borders from Israel instead of against their own citizens.

"Now that the Muslim nations of the regional countries . . . are demanding independence, freedom and Islamic democracy, the armies of these countries should support such popular movements," the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the top Iranian commander as saying.

Iran's head of parliament, Ali Larijani, also spoke out Sunday against state-backed violence in the region. "Military and violent crackdown with the people, such as we have seen in some regional countries such as Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, will only make the masses more resolved," Larijani said, according to the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency.

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