CAIRO — Iran’s president boasted Thursday that his nation had the capacity to make weapons grade nuclear fuel if it chose to, in a speech designed to rally the nation as it marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
The president’s remarks, combined with the government’s apparently successful effort to prevent the opposition from once again hijacking a national holiday, seemed designed to send a message to the regime’s domestic and international critics that it remained in control, and defiantly so.
There were demonstrations and clashes between security forces and protesters across Iran, and state broadcasters seemingly cut away from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech early, apparently as chants of “death to the dictator” arose in the crowd. But the opposition failed to reach a critical mass on the street, and the sentiment among the protesters was that the government had won the battle this day.
Instead of Internet videos of crowds shouting “Death to the Dictator” and fighting with baton-wielding police, attention focused largely on a government-sponsored rally and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pugnacious speech, delivered as Washington moves to implement new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
In the address in Tehran’s Azadi Square, Mr. Ahmadinejad relied on familiar nationalist and anti-Western themes, blaming America and Europe for trying to hold Iran down and challenging them by saying that Iran had already succeeded in enriching uranium to 20 percent and could do even more.
“We have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or 80 percent but we don’t enrich because we don’t need it,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.
But he added a warning to the West. “Please pay attention and understand that the people of Iran are brave enough that if it wants to build a bomb it will clearly announce it and build it and not be afraid of you,” he said. “When we say we won’t build it that means we won’t.”
The president also repeated his declaration that Iran was a “nuclear state,” adding that it had the capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade if it chose to. The West has accused Iran of running a nuclear weapons program, while Iran has insisted it is pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
“The Iranian nuclear issue has become the main pillar of the regime’s legitimacy,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, an Iran expert in Cairo. “So Ahmadinejad is putting it in the center of the scene in order to conceal the internal differences and huge domestic challenges they face.”
It was not at all clear how much uranium had been enriched or whether Iran had the capacity to transform that either into weapons-grade fuel or even into the fuel rods necessary for running the medical research reactor it says it aims to supply.
The Obama administration dismissed the idea that Iran had the capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade. “Iran has made a series of statements,” said the presidential spokesman, Robert Gibbs, that are “based on politics, not on physics," The Associated Press reported.
His speech, delivered from a platform decorated with flowers, was heard by a largely sympathetic crowd that was bused in from around the country to celebrate the most important political celebration of the year. It is a day similar to the Fourth of July in the United States or Bastille Day in France, and like those holidays it is steeped in myth and symbolism.
Both the opposition and the government hoped to control the message of the day. The opposition leaders, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, had called on their supporters to fill the streets, though they did not offer a clear plan.
The government provided little room for the opposition to gain traction. It sent thousands of security officers into Azadi Square the night before both to intimidate and, if necessary, block the opposition from participating. Those who attended the rally disappeared in a sea of government supporters.
Indeed, when Mr. Karroubi tried to enter the procession leading to Azadi Square, he and his supporters clashed with security forces and plain clothes militia members, according to opposition Web sites and news services.
Witnesses in other parts of the city reported the “greens,” as the opposition members are known, tried to turn out but were prevented from congregating in large groups. In some places, the witnesses said, Basij militias and other security officers descended on them, beating them with clubs until they dispersed.
There were also reports that the police arrested many demonstrators around the country and briefly detained Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grand daughter, Zahra Eshraghi, and her husband Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of a former pro-reform president. Protests were reported in the holy city of Mashad, Shiraz, Esfahan and around Tehran.
The greens were not entirely intimidated. Videos circuated on the Internet showing demonstrators tearing down and stomping on posters of the country’s supreme leader, pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, burning a motorcycle belonging to the Basij and chanting anti-government slogans like “Khamenei is a murderer, his rule is illegitimate.”
But given how the opposition had totally overwhelmed and defined past holidays, especially the religious observance of Ashura in December, the 31st anniversary day belonged to the leadership and its security forces.
Iran experts said that they were not surprised the government had prevailed, considering the extraordinary measures it had taken in recent months. Since Ashura, at least 1,000 people had been jailed, according to human rights groups. Two prisoners were hanged, many people were given long prison sentences and the government announced that anyone arrested Thursday would remain in prison at least until the end of March.
“This is not a victory for the government,” said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of parliament who is now a visiting professor at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “this show was aimed at sending a wrong message to the outside world about the government’s popularity.”
Opposition members in Tehran said that the Ministry of information sent out text messages on Thursday saying that “rioters would be killed today,” while government employees were ordered to participate in the pro-government rally.
As the sun set on Thursday, there were once again people climbing to their rooftops screaming “God is Great” and “Death to the Dictator,” according to people in Tehran.
But that seemed to be the extent of the rebellion on this day. “The opposition seems to have tactically withdrawn, to show up another day and at another time of its own choosing,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert based in Virginia, who has extensive contacts in Tehran.
Iran Controls Protests and Defies West on Nuclear Fuel - NYTimes.com