Today is the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and tension has been building around this event for some time. The Government has seen it as another potential flashpoint in the ongoing battle over its legitimacy following the disputed presidential election last year. Western correspondents have talked about this being a test of strength for the opposition movements that might indicate, if there were not a massive opposition turnout, that the moment for challenging the Ahmadinejad regime may be passing.
In contrast, sources in Iran have talked down the possibility of major protests today precisely because the Government has gone to such elaborate lengths to protect and preserve its anniversary celebrations. Many opposition supporters in Tehran who had attended all previous demonstrations had made up their minds to stay at home today. A student activist at Tehran University reports that his group was told by the head of the Basij (pro-Government militia) on campus: ‘I'm doing you a favour by telling you this: if you don't leave Tehran for this week, we are arresting you all’. The student duly left the capital for the period around the anniversary to stay with family in the north of the country.
The Government prepared for the anniversary celebrations - the centrepiece of which was a massive rally in Azadi Square addressed by the President - by swooping to arrest some key activists. Early in the morning, one of Ahmadinejad's main opponents in the presidential election, Mehdi Karroubi, was reported to have been beaten up by Basij militia while on his way to a planned demonstration in Saddqiya Street. The security presence in Tehran is extremely heavy, with vast numbers of riot police and militia blocking access to the centre and effectively creating an exclusion zone around the official rally.
Those people who have made it to the central area have been risking immediate arrest or being targeted by gunfire or teargas. Those arrested know, following the death sentences passed earlier this week on people who protested against the election result, that the show of defiance today could easily cost them their lives.
The relatively small numbers of opposition activists on the streets - especially when compared with the vast numbers bussed in from outside the capital by the regime for the official rally - should in no sense be seen as a sign that antipathy to the Ahmadinejad regime is lessening. It may be that this shows an opposition pragmatically biding its time rather than making a stand on ground of the Government's own choosing.
There have also been clashes reported in Isfahan today... the second most populous city in Iran, film: