Financial Times FT.comIranBy Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj in Tehran
Published: February 14 2011 19:18 | Last updated: February 14 2011 22:05
Iranian security forces clashed with protesters as hundreds of thousands marched in Tehran on Monday in the biggest rally by the opposition Green Movement for more than a year.
Police used teargas in an attempt to disperse the vast numbers as opposition supporters took to the streets to express solidarity with the recent uprisings in north Africa.
The crowd â€“ whose size far exceeded the predictions of most analysts â€“ assembled despite threats by the Revolutionary Guard in recent days to crush any gathering. At least 20 politicians and journalists were arrested before the rally.
Tehran backed the earlier protests in Tunisia and Egypt, describing them as an Islamic movement against western-backed dictators and likening them to the 1979 revolution in Iran.
However, facing the most significant opposition unrest since the brutal crackdown on demonstrations in the wake of Iranâ€™s disputed 2009 presidential elections, the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, president, banned Mondayâ€™s rally.
Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two prominent opposition leaders who ran in the disputed presidential poll and who have urged Iranians to back the Middle East pro-democracy movement, were placed under house arrest on Monday to prevent their joining the demonstration.
A statement on Mr Moussaviâ€™s website called on protesters to show their anger through silence â€“ a call largely observed by marchers along the 10km route from Imam Hossein to Azadi squares in an effort to avoid provoking violence.
Witnesses said the marchers largely avoided chanting slogans, but whenever cries of â€œDeath to the dictatorâ€ or â€œGod is greatâ€ rang out, security forces were quick to arrest or attack protesters with batons. Riot police and security officers also blocked some junctions in an attempt to scatter demonstrators.
It was not clear how many people were detained or injured. Some opposition websites said several hundred had been arrested. The semi-official Fars news agency cited violence on the part of protesters in a report that could herald a hard line by security forces. â€œOne person was shot dead and several were wounded by seditionists (opposition supporters) who staged a rally in Tehran,â€ Fars said, without giving further details.
The Islamic regime called the rally a conspiracy to revive the Green Movement. Iranian leaders accuse western governments â€“ notably the US â€“ of trying to topple or undermine the Islamic regime by encouraging street protests.
Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard, said at the weekend that â€œwestern spy agencies [would] try to find a retarded person to commit self-immolation and liken it to the developments in Tunisia and Egyptâ€ .
However, opposition supporters were undeterred and used the internet â€“ including blogs and Facebook and Twitter posts â€“ to rally demonstrators.
Mr Moussaviâ€™s website said the arrests and restrictions on opposition leaders were the result of â€œthe ruling autocratsâ€™ weaknessâ€ .
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Tehran should grant its citizens the same reforms as have been seen in Egypt.
â€œLet me, clearly and directly, support the aspirations of the people who are in the streets in Iran today ... What we see happening in Iran today is a testament to the courage of the Iranian people, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime â€“ a regime which over the last three weeks has constantly hailed what went on in Egypt,â€ she said.
The US is taking a much more active role supporting the demonstrations in Iran than anywhere else in the region, launching a Farsi-language Twitter feed supporting the protesters over the weekend.
The backing for the demonstrations contrasts with Washingtonâ€™s much more understated reaction to the Green Revolution in 2009, but is being forcefully pushed by the White House, which has been much more circumspect on protests in US allies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Joe Biden, vice-president, has challenged Tehran to follow Egyptâ€™s example and â€œlet your people march, let your people speak, release your people from jail, let them have a voiceâ€ .
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Washington
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