Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets Monday, ignoring threats from the government and heeding calls by Iranian opposition leaders to demonstrate in a day of solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian protesters, who recently toppled their own regimes. Protesters chanted, “Death to the dictator,” and “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s your turn Sayyed Ali,” meaning that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei should step down in Iran just as Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia.
Iranian police responded to the protesters with beatings, arrests, tear gas, and other brutal measures, leaving at least two dead and dozens injured according to unofficial reports. By nightfall, peace was largely restored, and it is unclear whether or not more protests will ensue. Monday’s protests were the largest in Iran since the summer of 2009 in the wake of the stolen elections and, before that, since the 1979 revolution that toppled the former pro-Western regime.
An anti-government protest in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Feb. 14.
The Obama administration, criticized for remaining quiet during the 2009 riots, quickly threw its support behind the marchers yesterday. “Let me, clearly and directly, support the aspirations of the people who are in the streets in Iran today,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington. In addition, the U.S. State Department launched a new Farsi-language Twitter feed Sunday in an attempt to engage the Iranian people. “US State Dept recognizes [the] historic role of social media among Iranians. We want to join in your conversations,” the department said in its first tweet.
On Tuesday, Iranian lawmakers called for opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi to face the death penalty for fomenting unrest and being “corrupt on earth,” a capital offence in Iran. The statement calling for their trial was signed by 222 lawmakers out of 290.
Unlike in Egypt, where the military sided with the protesters, the Iranian regime has the upper-hand in the situation with its forces clearly willing to use brutality to disperse the rioters. While that certainly makes the task of toppling their regime more dangerous and difficult, the U.S. should not underestimate the power of an oppressed people and Washington should lend any support it can to those seeking freedom from rulers who declare the U.S. to be an enemy.