Iran's Anniversary: Where Was the Opposition?

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Vahid Salemi / AP

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, greets well-wishers in Tehran as he attends a rally commemorating the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution on Feb. 11, 2010

Traffic in northern Tehran was incredibly clear on the 31st anniversary of the country's Islamic revolution. A trip that usually takes an hour and a half was traversed in 30 minutes. The districts in the area were the source of some of the more fervent anti-government protesters after the country's disputed presidential election in June. But apparently, many residents — who are among the city's more affluent — took advantage of the beginning of a five-day holiday to book trips to tourist destinations such as Dubai, Istanbul or Iranian towns on the shores of the Caspian Sea, perhaps to avoid the violence that accompanied religious festivities in December. A travel agent said flights to Dubai had been reserved for the holiday weeks in advance. That would help explain the relative silence of the opposition on what many had thought was going to a day of noisy, if not fiery, confrontation in Iran's capital.

All the traffic was downtown. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians, nearly a million according to one estimate, surrounded Tehran's Azadi Square on Thursday morning to celebrate the 1979 revolution. The majority of those attending the pro-government ceremony were families, including the elderly and small children. Some had taken free buses, but many took the Tehran metro, which was also free to use. On main streets entering the large public space, kiosks stretched for kilometers showcasing the carnival-like atmosphere, which usually accompanies the Iranian holiday. One booth displayed a youth karate club sparring on gym mats, while another featured a live broadcast from Iran's state radio. Every block housed a truck or tent with people handing out free juice or snacks, which many marchers hustled to get. Free signs were available, with slogans supporting the position of the Supreme Leader, the call for unity and, of course, the chant "Down with America."

The opposition had tried to plan protests to coincide with the anniversary, but little to no sign of the Green Movement could be seen around Azadi Square when the ceremonies began around 11 a.m. Surrounding the stage where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to speak, the grounds were cordoned off with a chain-link fence. Still, anyone could enter the area as long as they submitted to a security check. At a speech witnessed by TIME, there was only one apparent incident of protest — a large sign showing an image of Ayatullah Khomeini with an X on his face, which was quickly confiscated by guards.

In between the revolutionary songs that were blasted over loud speakers (which were strung out for miles from the square), thousands of pounds of confetti were poured from Azadi Tower in the square, accompanied by paratroopers who dropped in from the sky. Several of the parachutes were attached to long Iranian flags that streamed across the crowd as the troopers landed. Ahmadinejad arrived and delivered a speech that was over an hour long and consistently evoked the important advancements of Iran, including its nuclear achievements. The President did not bring up the June 2009 election, which is still disputed by the opposition — the previous speaker had already done so for him. Opposition websites reported chants of "Death to the dictator" during the speech, but TIME heard no such interruption.

It was easy to see how any attempt at disruption may have been cowed. On Revolution Street, which stretches from Azadi Square eastward, tens of thousands of police forces as well as paramilitary Basij were standing guard. In a line of 20 Basij motorcycles on a side street, young riders stood nearby, chatting and laughing — in stark contrast to earlier protests, during which most Basij were constantly on the move responding to opposition protests in various squares in the city. Indeed, the Green Movement, with its vaunted viral organization, may have been stymied by the regime this time. As late as Wednesday night, would-be protesters were calling one another, trying to figure out whether any locations where they might congregate had been targeted.

Did the opposition fail to mount a presence? Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi had announced an appearance at Sadeghiyeh Square, northwest of Azadi Square; carried video of what appears to be a Karroubi supporter showing a scene of apparent protests before a hand or pair of hands attempts to cover the lens of the camera. Some reports allege that the Basij suppressed the Karroubi rally. Other protesters had planned to gather in Haft-e-Tir Square, northeast of Azadi. In addition, video circulated on opposition sites showing people tearing down government posters or chanting slogans in the subway. State-run television also mentioned small protests made up of hundreds on the edge of the big rally.

Still, if an attempt to disrupt or eclipse the pro-government revolution rally was the main goal, opposition sympathizers may be disappointed. Any sporadic street battles that may have taken place were small and occurred in virtual isolation. Most Iranians will be unaware of them.