MARGARET WARNER: This was the view at Freedom Square in Tehran today, hundreds of thousands of Iranians massing to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, 31 years ago.
Government supporters chanted the traditional “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” and hoisted effigies of President Obama. Opponents of the government tried to stage their own rallies. But their numbers appeared small compared with the huge protests after last year’s disputed presidential election.
Amateur video showed protesters being chased by the pro-government Basij militia, and opposition Web sites said many were beaten and tear-gassed.
The Web site said Mehdi Karroubi, one of last year’s opposition candidates, was pepper-sprayed. Former President Mohammad Khatami was said to have been attacked, and his son and daughter-in-law briefly arrested. Ironically, she is the granddaughter of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And Karroubi and Khatami were part of the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah.
But, in the years since Khomeini’s death, growing divisions have appeared. And, today, protesters tore down pictures of the late leader. They were kept away from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech. He defiantly declared Iran is now a nuclear state and has begun enriching uranium at 20 percent purity, a significantly higher level than before.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, president, Iran (through translator): In Natanz, we are producing and stockpiling several kilos of this every day, and, God willing, in the near future, daily production will be tripled.
MARGARET WARNER: Just two days ago, technicians at the Natanz nuclear facility switched on new centrifuges to provide the capacity for 20 percent enrichment. That’s well short of the 90 percent mark required for modern warheads, but it still defied international calls to halt the nuclear program.
At today’s rally, President Ahmadinejad again declared Iran could, but doesn’t plan, to build a bomb.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (through translator): The Iranian nation is brave enough that, if one day, we wanted to build nuclear bombs, we would announce it publicly, without being afraid of you, the West.
MARGARET WARNER: Those claims conflicted with a Washington Post report today that two scientific groups believe Iran is “experiencing surprising setbacks in its efforts to enrich uranium.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Ahmadinejad’s latest nuclear claim is not believable. And he took aim at the tactics used to suppress Iranians’ freedom of expression on the Internet and in the streets.
ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: A lot of media, Google and other Internet services, have been basically unplugged. I think the president was very clear in his speech in Oslo that we stand by the universal rights of Iranians to express themselves freely and to do so without intimidation or violence.
MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced enhanced sanctions against a general in the elite Revolutionary Guard and four construction firms he runs. They’re accused of funneling money into Iran’s weapons programs.
President Obama said Tuesday the U.S. is moving to get other major powers to isolate the Iranian regime as well.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we are going to be working on over the next several weeks is developing a significant regime of sanctions that will indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole.
MARGARET WARNER: But, in Tehran today, the Iranian leadership gave every impression that they think they’re riding high.