Protesters in Iran Clash With Police
By Farnaz Fassihi
The Wall Street Journal
March 1 2011
BEIRUT—Tensions escalated in Iran on Tuesday as antigovernment protests erupted nationwide following the arrests last week of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and their wives.
The demonstration—part of an opposition plan to challenge the regime with weekly rallies—drew tens of thousands of supporters in Tehran for the third time in two weeks, witnesses said. They said this week's rally, which coincided with Mr. Mousavi's birthday, was the largest and most violent yet.
The government deployed swaths of security forces, including antiriot police and plainclothes Basij militia, to battle the crowds with tear gas, batons and bullets, according to witnesses.
Clashes continued late into the night, with reports from opposition websites that at least 50 people were arrested at one location in Tehran. No report of casualties has yet surfaced from either the government or the opposition.
The public appeared infuriated, witnesses said, fighting security forces with rocks and setting two police vans ablaze.
A poster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with the words "Say your goodbye, dictator" was hung over a main highway in Tehran, pictures and videos posted on YouTube and other websites showed. In Tehran's Sadeghiyeh Square, a large banner showing Mr. Khamenei was pulled down and set on fire, witnesses reported.
The opposition Green Movement appears to have been reinvigorated by the wave of pro-democracy revolts around the Middle East. Analysts say the crowds turning out week after week from Tehran to Shiraz and Mashad are embarrassing the regime and shattering perceptions, both at home and abroad, that the opposition had weakened.
"The protests today showed the opposition has penetrated deeply in the society and managed to spread to smaller cities," said a political analyst in Tehran. "Iranians are starting to think we don't have to live this way."
Iran's government has tried to portray its internal political crisis to the international community as insignificant and unrelated to the other uprisings around the region. Rajanews, a conservative website run by an ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reported that the crowds in the street Tuesday were part of the holiday shopping rush ahead of Norouz, the Persian New Year, in March.
The families of Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi said the men and their wives were arrested and transferred to Heshmatiyeh jail in Tehran last week.
Iranian judicial authorities denied the four were arrested, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency, but confirmed that steps had been taken to isolate the two men from their supporters.
The international community, from the U.S. to the European Union, has called for the immediate release of the men and their wives.
"These issues are our internal affairs. No country is allowed and will not be allowed to interfere in our internal affairs," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, according to official Iranian news agencies.
One witness said a group of antiriot police near Engelab Avenue, a main street in central Tehran, began smashing car windows in frustration when protesters wouldn't back down. A bus carrying rush-hour passengers in Tehran was attacked by Basij militia when passengers suddenly stuck their heads of the window and chanted slogans against Mr. Khamenei, witnesses said.
"The level of anger on both sides was unprecedented," said a young man from Tehran. He said at one point a team of riot police encircled the crowd where he was standing and beat the crowd with electric batons. When protesters shoved them back, they fired in the air, he said.