Has Iran learned how to prevent protests?

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ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent out thousands of troops today to make sure that opposition protesters did not mar demonstrations to mark the 31st anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution.

Opposition protesters called for a referendum on the future of the Islamic Republic and clashed with security forces in isolated incidents.

The government deployed tens of thousands of security forces and militiamen on the main demonstration routes in Tehran and other major cities to guard against what it called “infiltration by counter-revolutionaries.”

Pro- and anti-government demonstrators offered conflicting estimates of their numbers. State television showed thousands of loyalists moving along Tehran’s Revolution Boulevard into Freedom Square, where Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has already enriched part of its uranium stockpile to 20 percent.

Opposition leaders claimed that the crowds were bused in from the provinces and offered free food to attend. Eyewitnesses reported reduced numbers of both government and anti-government protesters compared to previous government-organized events reflecting the tensions dominating Iran’s major cities.

“It’s dead, done, finished,” said Sara, an architect and opposition supporter in Tehran of the street protests. 

Though Sara had attended many of the post-election rallies last year, she said she did not dare go out today or give her name for fear of official retribution. She said the street protests against the Ahmadinejad government were no longer viable, she thought, because of the heavy presence of government troops. “There were five times the numbers of troops on the streets, so many they would not allow anyone to move,” she said over the telephone.

Speaking from a stand in front of a large crowd, Ahmadinejad condemned the West as “liars and cowards” and predicted the end of the capitalist system and its “inhumane method of thought.” His voice was carried over a disjointed-sounding live audio feed that opposition supporters said was broadcast with a several seconds time delay.

Tight security ensured that no one carrying or wearing opposition paraphernalia entered the square where Ahmadinejad delivered his speech but opposition sources claimed that they managed to burn an Iranian flag close to the official pavilion. Foreign journalists were bused in and out of the square and allowed only to cover the government event.

“I know and admit that my country is not the best, the system and its government and maybe those who ruled the country had and still have a lot of woes and shortages,” said Freshteh Sadeghi, a regime supporter in an email message, “but if we lose this Islamic Republic what will we get instead — a secular republic which obeys the U.S.? Thanks but no thanks, we don’t want it.”

Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi and two-time former President Mohammad Khatami were reportedly attacked and several of their relatives briefly detained, according to Radio Farda. There were no sightings of the main opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, but his main backer, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, was photographed participating in the official rally, prompting rumors that he has struck a deal with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Cell phone service and the internet were severely disrupted, slowing to a crawl the usual flood of protest videos shot on cell phones.

“The regime has managed to control today,” said Mohsen, a pro-opposition banker speaking on the phone from Tehran. “At the same time, there might have been a lot of clashes during the day that we don’t know about or people might decide to mobilize during the evening, although the risk gets higher then as well.”

Opposition protests were staged in other large cities around Iran but failed to reach the scale of January’s demonstrations, despite far more extensive pre-planning since large demonstrations on the holy Shiite feast of Ashura in December. One organizer complained of “a lack of coordination and street level leadership” and blamed this on the jailing of student leaders, or the fact that many more have been forced into hiding.

“There’s a security atmosphere out in the streets, even a military one,” said Ali, a student activist speaking from Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city. “There were armed Bassij in the main boulevards and the side-streets, not allowing people to stay out beyond 11 p.m.”

Best known for its religious shrine and large student population, Mashhad was allegedly one of a few cities in which opposition protesters and regime supporters clashed head to head.
Despite having organized previous protests, Ali confessed “I wasn’t ready to go out today in this atmosphere.”

“All of us who would attend the demos have decided that this way of protest is finished, the regime has got too good at short-circuiting it,” said Sara. “There has to be a new strategy instead of us going out to the streets to protest.”