TEHRAN (AFP) – Iranian opposition leaders Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi were attacked and their supporters clashed with police during marches marking the Islamic revolution Thursday, an opposition website and Karroubi’s son said.
The cars of the leaders came under attack by police and plainclothes security men but neither was hurt, website Rahesabz and Karroubi’s son Hossein said.
Rahesabz said police had used teargas at crowds of opposition supporters at Sadeghieh square. The reports could not independently be confirmed as the foreign media has been barred from covering the street marches.
Rahesabz also reported that ex-president Khatami’s brother Mohammad Reza and his wife Zahra Eshraghi were briefly arrested by security forces but later released.
Hossein Karroubi told AFP that his father was “not injured but his guards who were accompanying him were.”
“They (police and plainclothes men) fired tear gas and were brandishing knives when they clashed with our supporters” before the cleric reached western Tehran’s Sadeghieh Square from where he was supposed to join the marches.
Karroubi’s other son Ali was also arrested, Hossein said.
The clashes at Sadeghieh Square took place about a kilometre from Azadi (Freedom) Square, where hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered from early morning to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
State television showed footage of men, chador-clad women and children carrying banners reading “Death to America, Death to Israel!” massed at the square in southwest Tehran celebrating the anniversary of the day the US-backed shah was toppled in 1979.
“The 22 of Bahman (February 11) is the symbol of Iranian unity,” said state television as it reported that a million Iranians had gathered at Azadi Square.
Ahmadinejad in his address said Iran has produced a “first stock” of 20 percent enriched uranium for its nuclear programme and is capable of enriching it to 80 percent but will not do so.
The hardline president also said Iran would soon triple its daily production of low-enriched uranium (3.5 percent) and lashed out at US President Barack Obama, saying his American counterpart was “missing opportunities” and serving the interests of Israel. Related article: Tehran boasts of first stock of 20% uranium
Celebrations to mark the anniversary have traditionally been festive, and an opportunity for Iranian leaders to showcase popular support for the establishment.
But this year opposition supporters used the occasion to stage anti-government rallies, with Rahesabz reporting that “very large crowds” had gathered at Sadeghieh Square.
A witness told AFP that “police also fired tear gas and several rounds from air guns at opposition supporters.”
Hitting back at official efforts to stifle news of opposition protests, the opposition launched an impromptu radio station on the Internet in the late morning.
The scratchy, live broadcast flashed news reports about the attacks on opposition leaders, and clashes between protesters and security forces, including the Basij militia.
The opposition’s ability to mount protests despite a massive security force deployment is seen as highly symbolic given the anniversary’s historic significance.
The elite Revolutionary Guards and police had warned they would crack down heavily on any protests which, since they first erupted last June, have threatened the very pillars of the Islamic regime and split the senior clergy. Related article: Key dates since the 1979 revolution
“If anyone wants to disrupt this glorious ceremony, they will be confronted by people and we too are fully prepared,” police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam warned on Wednesday.
Several people who had been planning to protest are already in custody, he added, while another opposition website Kaleme.org on Thursday said “there have been widespread arrests” of protesters.
Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last June plunged the Islamic republic into one of its worst-ever political crises, with the opposition refusing to take the fight off the streets despite often deadly crackdowns.
Most recently, eight people were killed on the Shiite holy day of Ashura on December 27 and hundreds were jailed as authorities battled protesters they accuse of seeking to topple the regime and siding with Iran’s enemies abroad.
Iran’s all-powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says he wants Thursday’s celebrations to be a show of unity and to deliver a stunning “punch” to “arrogant” powers.
The opposition is led by former stalwarts of the Islamic republic, including one-time premier Mir Hossein Mousavi, who says the 1979 revolution failed because the shah-era “roots of tyranny and dictatorship” still exist.
Mousavi and Karroubi had urged a mass turnout by their supporters in what is known as the “Green Movement,” but also urged them to show restraint.
Ahead of the anniversary, Internet connections slowed to a crawl and text messaging services were disrupted, with the government blaming technical glitches.