- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tens of thousands of people marched in Tehran and other major Iranian cities Friday as demonstrators turned an annual anti-Israel event into a new protest against the Islamic government.

Witnesses and videos posted on the Internet and broadcast by foreign television showed clashes between security forces and protesters chanting “No Gaza, no Lebanon: my life only for Iran” and “death to the dictator.”

The demonstrations - the first large street protests since mid-July - had been expected on Friday, when the government celebrates Quds or Jerusalem Day. The event, held every year on the final Friday in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is supposed to show solidarity with the Palestinians.

This year, however, the political opposition decided to use the occasion to resume mass demonstrations against disputed June 12 presidential elections and the violent crackdown that followed.

Waving V-for-victory signs and wearing green - the color of the opposition - marchers defied warnings from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard not to subvert the commemoration. They filled several major boulevards in Tehran and also turned out in Isfahan, Tabriz and Shiraz, said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian scholar at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While pro-government demonstrators outnumbered the protesters in Tehran - not surprising since regime supporters are typically bused into the city and given free food and money - state television repeatedly had to interrupt live coverage to bleep out protest slogans.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed to address regime loyalists, harshly criticizing Israel and questioning the Holocaust. But when Iranian “TV wanted to interview Ahmadinejad, they had to stop because people behind the president were chanting ‘Ahmadi resign,’ ” Mr. Khalaji said.

“For the past few decades, the people were afraid and the government was not, but now the game has changed,” he said. “The government is fearful and the people are fearless.”

Witnesses said protesters threw stones and bricks at security forces wielding clubs and firing tear gas. At least 10 people were arrested, the Associated Press reported.

Opposition leaders also defied government warnings by participating in the demonstrations.

A group of regime supporters pushed through the crowds at one point and attacked former president Mohammad Khatami, according to a reformist Web site. It said that opposition activists rescued Mr. Khatami and that he was unharmed.

The AP reported that other hard-liners went after Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who many Iranians believe actually won the June elections. Supporters pushed Mr. Mousavi into his car, and he escaped, a witness said.

Mehdi Karroubi, a presidential candidate and cleric who has taken up the cause of Iranians abused in prison since the vote, also participated in the demonstrations.

The protests came only days before Mr. Ahmadinejad is due to arrive in New York for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. While he has faced protests in the past from Israel supporters, groups that oppose Iran’s nuclear program and some Iranian exile organizations, this year the demonstrations are expected to be much larger.

Normally not press-shy, the Iranian leader is limiting his appearances to his speech at the U.N., private dinners with Iranian-Americans and think -tankers, and a press conference with U.N. correspondents.

The Obama administration announced last week that it would join Europeans, Russia and China in talks with Iran scheduled to begin Oct. 1.

Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer in Iran, said U.S. officials should make human rights a focus of the discussions.

“I believe that if any U.S. officials meet with their Iranian counterparts, they should not only negotiate on the subject of nuclear enrichment but also keep the issue of human rights at the very center of their discussions,” she said in a statement made available to The Washington Times.

Payam Akhavan, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor and co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, said, “My basic view is that if human rights and democracy is off the table, it will be taken as a signal of approval and acquiescence in the atrocities that have been committed. It will be seen as a slap in the face of the democratic movement in Iran.”

Mr. Akhavan, who was a classmate of President Obama’s at Harvard Law School, added, “Even from a pragmatic point of view, it is not wise to focus exclusively on the nuclear file, because that is what Ahmadinejad has used to make him the champion of Iranian sovereignty against foreign meddling, whereas if there is solidarity with the democracy movement, it will be seen as solidarity with the Iranian people.”

The Iranian government has sought to portray the protests as somehow engineered by the West.

“Obama has been wise to deprive Ahmadinejad of a pretext to say that these protests are all part of a U.S. conspiracy,” Mr. Akhavan said. “The point now is Ahmadinejad has lost legitimacy at home, so he is desperately seeking this abroad.”

Eli Lake contributed to this story.

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