Iran's Opposition Finally Gets a Reason to Protest

For hardliners in Iran, Quds Day [Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem] has traditionally been an occasion to flood the streets with supporters and express sympathy for the Palestinians. This year, however, the opposition co-opted the event. Tens of thousands of protestors poured into the streets of Tehran on Friday, wearing wristbands, scarves, and banners in green—the color of the opposition—to denounce June's disputed presidential elections and the subsequent crackdown.

The size of the crowds, despite government warnings to stay away, was a clear sign that the opposition movement remains very much alive. But what set this protest apart was that senior political figures joined the marchers. The notables included Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, candidates in the June election, and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. Even former president Mohammad Khatami showed up. Though all are now associated with the opposition, they are not fringe figures. All have served the system for 30 years. Under intense government pressure, they have mostly avoided the street since the June 12 elections. But they were back on Friday.

The occasion of Quds Day may have given them some political cover, but the leaders took a big risk by publicly joining the crowds. At Friday prayers last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that no one should use Quds Day for purposes other than highlighting the cause of the Palestinian people. And on Thursday, the Revolutionary Guard warned of a "decisive confrontation" if protestors hit the streets. That the opposition leaders defied this edict wasn't lost on anyone. "Today was a very important day for two reasons: the large crowds and the appearance of these well-known individuals," says the family member of a senior cleric who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's very important that things haven't quieted down after the horrific intimidation campaign that's been going on."

Just how risky the opposition's appearance was quickly became apparent. At about noon local time, Khatami was attacked while walking in a crowd, according to the Parleman News site. He was reportedly knocked to the ground before dozens of supporters came to his aid and fought off the assailants. The site claimed that the attack was led by Abolfazl Shariatmadari, the son of Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the conservative newspaper Kayhan. Pictures quickly circulated on Twitter of Khatami in the middle of a scuffle with his turban knocked off. He reportedly left the scene without any serious injuries. BBC Persian reported that Mousavi's car was also attacked, although he managed to depart before things got out of hand.

Protests were also held in smaller cities like Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz. Even as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the occasion to once again question the Holocaust, the chant heard most often among the crowds was "Not Gaza! Not Lebanon! I'll give my life for Iran." YouTube videos posted today showed that when Ahmadinejad supporters chanted "Death to Israel" or "Death to America," opposition supporters replied with "Death to Russia"—the state seen as Tehran's key supporter.

Just how the government will react to the presence of senior opposition figures at the protests remains to be seen. Some observers have predicted that the events could be used as a pretext to arrest Mousavi and Karroubi. Whether or not that happens, Ahmadinejad will travel to the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York next week with even more baggage than usual. On arrival in Manhattan he can expect an increasingly familiar sight: large protests have been scheduled for New York next Wednesday.