Iran Fears Risky Clashes in Big Protests

Monday, 08 Feb 2010 05:55 PM

 

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DUBAI—Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized protesters as agents of foreign powers ahead of antigovernment demonstrations planned for Thursday, setting the stage for clashes that analysts say pose big risks for both sides.

For weeks, opposition leaders have called for their supporters to use Feb. 11—the culmination of celebrations marking the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution—to stage fresh protests. Government officials, meanwhile, have threatened retaliation. Authorities have locked up alleged protest organizers, hanged at least two political prisoners, and vowed to execute other detainees who have been rounded up and charged in previous protests.

Amid the heightened rhetoric, the stakes have increased for both sides, analysts say. If the opposition fails to turn out in large numbers on Thursday, Iranian authorities could appear to have finally marginalized protest organizers, after more than eight months of sporadic, often-violent clashes with security services. But if Tehran fails to prevent massive protests once again on Feb. 11—despite using some of its harshest tactics so far—officials risk appearing impotent to curb further unrest.

"For both sides, this is almost a make-or-break day," said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. "If the opposition doesn't have a good showing, it will be a big setback. If the regime, despite throwing everything at [preventing demonstrations], doesn't stop the protests, they'll have to rethink their strategy."

Typically, state-sponsored rallies and demonstrations take on a carnival-like atmosphere on the day marking the capitulation of the shah's forces in 1979. Iranian officials also use the commemoration period to announce scientific and military breakthroughs.

This year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other officials have presided over the unveiling of new satellite and laser technology; they have claimed Iran successfully tested a domestically built aerial drone; and, on Sunday, Mr. Ahmadinejad ordered his nuclear agency to start enriching uranium for use in a medical research reactor.

Analysts treat Iranian claims of scientific and military advances skeptically. But Iran's vow to enrich uranium to 20% purity has alarmed Western officials, who worry about Tehran's ability to someday produce much higher enriched fuel for use in nuclear weapons, though Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in a statement that Iran had notified it of its intention to enrich its uranium at a pilot enrichment facility at Natanz. The IAEA said the notification raised "concern, as it may affect, in particular, ongoing international efforts to ensure the availability of nuclear fuel" for the medical reactor in Tehran.

Iran has so far refused to agree to a draft fuel deal brokered last year by the IAEA between Iran and Western powers that called for Tehran to ship out much of its low-enriched uranium for further processing overseas. Washington and its allies have threatened economic sanctions if talks over Iran's nuclear ambitions don't succeed.

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