Washington Post: Thousands of Iranians took to the streets Wednesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but the annual state-sponsored anti-American rally turned into another sign of the deep divisions persisting in this country. The Washington Post
Clashes erupt as regime marks 30th anniversary of U.S. Embassy siege
By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009
TEHRAN — Thousands of Iranians took to the streets Wednesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but the annual state-sponsored anti-American rally turned into another sign of the deep divisions persisting in this country.
As pro-government demonstrators ritually chanted "Death to America!" outside the former U.S. Embassy, opposition protesters used the occasion to vent their anger over a disputed presidential election in June and the harsh crackdown on subsequent protests. Converging on a square about half a mile from the former embassy, the opposition marchers denounced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with shouts of "Death to the dictator!"
The rival demonstrations — and ensuing street clashes between protesters and security forces — illustrated the split that has come to define Iran three decades after Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the U.S.-backed shah and branded America "the Great Satan." While Iran's ruling ayatollahs and government leaders maintain their entrenched distrust of and enmity toward the United States, the young people who form the bulk of Iran's population have no memory of those revolutionary days, and many opposition supporters favor a more open society and greater international engagement.
The government has struggled to quell protests for five months, deploying security forces on the streets of Tehran and officially banning opposition demonstrations. Yet, on Wednesday, anti-government demonstrators openly defied the ban, even as police fired tear gas and warning shots. In video clips captured by cellphone cameras, helmeted police officers could be seen beating protesters, including women, with batons.
In Washington, before the clashes broke out, President Obama issued a statement marking the anniversary of the embassy takeover, in which militants stormed the building and seized diplomats and other U.S. personnel, whom they held hostage for 444 days. Obama called on the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past or the future.
"Iran must choose," he said.
Clashes were reported Wednesday in several places in Tehran and in Shiraz, a city 420 miles south of the capital. Most demonstrators were unable to convene for long periods, as motorcycle units of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and members of a pro-government militia arrived to disperse them.
Security forces prevented opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who challenged Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election, from leaving his office, a Web site affiliated with Mousavi reported. "He was under de facto house arrest today from the early morning," another Web site said.
The anti-government demonstrations, planned for weeks via the Internet, graffiti messages and illegal leaflets, were smaller than similar protests staged in September during annual state-sanctioned rallies in support of Palestinians. Analysts said the protests nevertheless showed the persistence of opposition groups in challenging Iran's political leaders.
A bodyguard for 72-year-old opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi was hit by a tear gas canister as Karroubi tried to participate in an anti-government gathering at the central Haft-e Tir Square. Authorities had warned Karroubi that there would be an assassination attempt against him, his son Taqi Karroubi told a Web site that is often critical of the government. Karroubi's Web site reported that the Shiite Muslim cleric, a former parliamentary speaker, fell to the ground after he was overcome by tear gas and had to be carried to his car.
Iranian authorities had warned protesters against attempts to disrupt or overshadow the annual gathering outside the former U.S. Embassy.
Thousands attended the state-sanctioned rally, holding up signs denouncing the United States. Young men in military fatigues burned a homemade U.S. flag and danced around the flames, punching their fists in the air.
"No compromise, no surrender! Battle with America!" one speaker shouted, as the crowd repeated his words.
"The Americans say they are worried about religious democracy in Iran," said Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former head of parliament. "But they get upset when Islamic parties win free elections."
Haddad Adel also charged that opposition leaders were betraying their country. "What will they answer to the families of the martyrs? To the pure children of the revolution? What will they answer to our supreme leader?" he asked, accusing protesters of doing the bidding of the United States. "They will have to answer to the nation."
In a statement that was translated into Farsi, Obama said: "Thirty years ago today, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized. The 444 days that began on November 4, 1979, deeply affected the lives of courageous Americans who were unjustly held hostage."
The embassy takeover "helped set the United States and Iran on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust and confrontation," he said, adding that the United States "wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect."
Obama said the United States does not interfere in Iran's internal affairs, condemns terrorist attacks against the Islamic nation, recognizes Iran's right to peaceful nuclear power and accepts a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet Tehran's request for help in producing medical isotopes.
"We have heard for thirty years what the Iranian government is against," he said. "The question, now, is what kind of future it is for. The American people have great respect for the people of Iran and their rich history. The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights. It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity and justice for its people."