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In Iran, A Government Show Of Force And An Opposition Display Of Courage -- Who Won And Who Lost?

People gathered in Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11.
People gathered in Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11.
The Iranian government went on the offensive on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, using the opportunity to flout international efforts to rein its nuclear ambitions and stymie internal dissent with a massive show of force.

Members of the Green Movement, prevented from exhibiting their opposition to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad en masse, displayed their courage by protesting in vulnerable pockets of resistance.

Berlin-based political analyst Mehdi Fatapour says both sides can claim victory.

"Government forces can claim success because they mobilized a significant number of repressive forces and didn't let the opposition protest at the location of the official celebrations attended by foreign journalists," he said. Meanwhile, he said, members of the opposition demonstrated once more that the Green Movement is "a real force."

A student member of the opposition who was beaten by security forces on February 11 conceded that the Green Movement had been frustrated by security tactics.

"We were defeated," he told RFE/RL, declining to provide his name out of fear for his safety. "The security forces were everywhere. They were either beating us or identifying us."

Opposition members had said that they would try to reach Azadi Square, the stage for Ahmadinejad's speech and the site of mass protests that followed the announcement of his June 12 reelection.

The president's speech was not disrupted. Ahmadinejad attacked the West and claimed that Iran had produced its first package of highly enriched uranium before a crowd of many thousands of government supporters waving Iranian flags and chanting pro-government slogans.

Opposition sources claim authorities padded the show of support by busing people from smaller cities and villages to the capital, where they were offered free food in exchange for attendance at the official celebrations.

Omid, a Tehran resident who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Farda on condition of anonymity, said that many members of the opposition did manage to make it to Azadi Square, but their protest effort hit a snag.

"Today, a significant group of Green Movement supporters went toward [Azadi] Square, as they had planned earlier -- they were carrying Iranian national flags so they could enter the main square," Omid said. "But there was an unexpected turn of events. Since this large group was carrying Iranian banners, [state television] recorded it, and the regime portrayed this group as having come to support the government."

The government reportedly sealed off the inner ring of Azadi Square to ensure that no one carrying green symbols could enter the area.

Elsewhere in Tehran and in other cities, thousands of plainclothes agents and security forces were deployed to prevent and disrupt any protests by the Greens. Eyewitnesses said security forces brutally beat protesters with batons and used tear gas against them. One of the leaders of the Green Movement, cleric Mehdi Karrubi, came under attack. Others, including main opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi and former President Mohammad Khatami, were reportedly prevented by hard-liners from joining the crowds.

Despite the show of force by the government, opposition members managed to launch scattered streets protests in Tehran and a number of other cities, including Shiraz.

In the capital, amateur videos of the February 11 protests showed demonstrators setting alight motorcycles of the Basij forces, calling for a referendum, and chanting slogans against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mostafa Khosravi, a member of the policy-making committee of the Graduates Association of Iran, told RFE/RL that the anniversary led to hopelessness and disillusionment among some members of the opposition movement.

Khosravi, who currently lives in Italy, told RFE/RL that it's time for the opposition movement to rethink its tactics and find new ways to continue its protests.

"The Green Movement has become used to taking to the streets on special dates," Khosravi said. "The next date is the anniversary of the creation of the movement []. This means that for four or five months, there will be a lack of political activism."

Khosravi said the situation could be dangerous and lead to "inaction."

In Tehran, reformist journalist Said Razavi Fagheeh says it's time for the leaders of the Green Movement, which to this point has touted grassroots organization wherein the "leaders are following the people," to take the initiative and play "their historic role."

"They should create an unofficial leadership council, announce their stances in statements, and lead the movement in coordination and with wisdom through the limited media and newspapers that are available," Fagheeh said.

Fagheeh predicted the opposition movement is likely to next attempt street protests on the occasion of the Iranian festival of fire, or Chahanrshanbeh Soori, a celebration dating back to the Zoroastrian era that is observed in March, on the last Wednesday evening in the Iranian year.

"Since Chahanrshanbeh Soori is an ancient national tradition and young people have in past years used it to express their identity against a totalitarian regime, I believe people will make good use of it," Fagheeh said.

Radio Farda broadcaster Ruzbeh Bolhari contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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