Last updated: February 11, 2010 6:48 pm

Dissidents keep low profile at Iran rally

Iran

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out to mark the the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution on Thursday but supporters and opponents of the regime held back from the angry exchanges of recent confrontations.

The regime’s opponents have in recent weeks tried to get round a ban on their rallies by hijacking official celebrations and turning them into protests. But this did not take place on a large scale on Thursday.

After the deaths of at least 10 people during their last rally in December, which coincided with the Shia festival of Ashoura, the dissidents marched without their green colours.

Nor did they chant slogans against Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president, or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. For his part, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad refrained from attacking his domestic opponents during a speech. Instead, he criticised Israel, the US and the UK.

The president’s proclaimed “landslide” victory in last June’s election triggered months of upheaval, with predictions of further protests during the anniversary.

But witnesses said the march went off relatively peacefully in spite of sporadic clashes between the security forces and opposition supporters, with tear-gas fired and reports of arrests.

Tehran-map

Mehdi Karroubi, 73, an opposition leader, was harassed by security forces as he neared the main route of the march in Tehran, the capital. His youngest son, Ali, was arrested.

It had been the “harshest attack” against Mr Karroubi, another son, Hossein, told the Financial Times. He said his father retreated into a passing car but security forces, some in plain clothes and others in fatigues, broke the windows and fired tear gas close to Mr Karroubi’s face.

The opposition leader was not hurt but one of his guards needed hospital treatment, said his son.

The website of Mir Hossein Moussavi, the opposition leader who ran for president last year, said his wife Zahra Rahnavard was beaten by security forces.

The authorities had spent weeks trying to ensure the opposition did not exploit the anniversary. Dozens of activists and journalists had been arrested, along with individuals suspected of using online social networking sites to encourage protests against the regime.

Ayatollah Khamenei and commanders of the Revolutionary Guards had made clear they wanted the occasion to be a show of national unity. Their hardline supporters, including those in the Islamic vigilante militias, were told not to provoke the opposition Green Movement. Government supporters carried placards with slogans directed at foreign rather than domestic enemies, declaring the “US and Britain [are] the brothers of the devil”, and “Down with Israel”.

Opposition leaders also appealed for restraint. Mr Moussavi urged his supporters to avoid “radical” slogans, warning that calls to overthrow the constitution would damage the Green Movement more than “the radicalism of totalitarians”.

Mr Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami, the former president, issued similar statements. The witnesses said revolutionary and nationalist anthems rang out along the 10km route of the rally, from Imam Hossein to Azadi squares in Tehran. The authorities did their best to encourage turnout, with free concerts and health services including blood pressure checks and information about swine flu.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad focused on the nuclear programme and defiance of the west. Iran, he said, had already begun producing uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity. “By God’s grace, it was reported that the first consignment of 20 per cent enriched uranium was produced and was put at the disposal of the scientists,” said Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.

“In the near future, we will treble its production.”

However, experts said the claim should be treated with caution since Iran lacked the capability to produce sufficient quantities of the material even within that ambiguous timeframe.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said: “When we say that we don’t build nuclear bombs, it means that we won’t do that because we don’t believe in having it.

“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 [the west],” he added.

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