Iran on Friday marked the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran with a flurry of state-backed demonstrations that stood in stark contrast to the anti-government protests that have engulfed the country and posed one of the biggest challenges to its ruling clerics.
Videos from Iran-state media showed a huge crowd gathered outside the former U.S. Embassy building in Tehran to celebrate the day revolutionary Iranian students, who accused the United States of plotting against Tehran, seized 52 Americans and held them hostage for 444 days.
Throughout the day, Iranian state television broadcast images and live feeds of the commemorations taking place in 100 cities across the country.
Women in head scarves were shown on Tehran’s streets chanting anti-American slogans and waving the flag of the Islamic Republic. Some arrived with placards praising the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Other signs displayed anti-Western phrases, like “Death to America!” One placard showed the flags of Israel, Britain and the United States arranged in the shape of a Nazi symbol. Another revealed a giant atom symbol, a brazen celebration of the progress Iran has made in recent years to stockpile highly enriched uranium that the United States says could now be used to build a nuclear weapon. As in anniversary commemorations in previous years, many attendees arrived at the demonstrations on buses paid for by the government.
The orchestrated display of nationalism was a surreal contrast to the scenes of protests that have embroiled the country for seven weeks calling for overthrowing the clerical rule and the death of the supreme leader. In the anti-government protests, security forces violently attack the crowds, even opening fire on them, to prevent them from assembling in large numbers. Opposition groups and dissidents have never been allowed to freely demonstrate in the streets and display their number of supporters to counter the size of pro-government protests.
The warring demonstrations and slogans underline the disconnect between the clerics who rule the country and the touchstones of the Islamic revolution, like the U.S. Embassy takeover. Many of the youthful protesters, born decades after the embassy takeover, have been turning out on the streets of Iran’s cities night after night to call for the end of the Islamic Republic.
More on the Protests in Iran
The nationwide protests were set off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police for violating the country’s mandatory hijab law.
The government has responded with a violent crackdown that has killed at least 300 protesters, including at least 40 children, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency. The United Nations said this week that more than 14,000 people have been arrested. The government has severely limited internet access and communications as part of efforts to quash the largely leaderless demonstrations.
In many cities in Sistan and Baluchestan provinces large anti-government protests erupted after Friday prayers. In Khash security forces opened fire on the crowds and many were injured, videos showed. The leading Sunni cleric in Zahedan, Molavi Abdul Hamid, called for a referendum in Iran monitored by international observers to “change policies according to people’s demands.”
In Isfahan and Saravan protests on Friday turned into clashes when security forces fired gunshots and threw tear gas at crowds, videos showed.
On Thursday, security forces opened fire on a large crowd that had gathered in the city of Karaj, near Tehran, to commemorate the 40th day of mourning for a young woman, Hadis Najafi, who was killed while protesting.
Videos on social media showed thousands of protesters chanting anti-government slogans and taking over a highway while marching to Ms. Najafi’s grave in a cemetery on the outskirts of Karaj. Ms. Najafi, 22, became an early symbol of the unrest when she was killed by security forces who opened fire on a demonstration in Karaj last month.
Security forces on Friday violently attacked unarmed protesters with live gunfire, according to videos obtained by BBC Persian. Other videos posted to social media showed protesters responding by throwing rocks, while smoke was seen billowing from a police box and military vehicles. One video appeared to show protesters setting fire to a traditional robe worn by Shia Muslim clerics and later photos of the cleric injured and bleeding were posted online.
According to Iranian state media, one member of the Basij militia was stabbed to death and several police officers were injured by “thugs” and “rioters.”
The commemorations of the embassy takeover anniversary underscored the deep hostility that Iran still feels toward the United States and the extent to which the Islamic government uses Washington as a target for blame for any opposition to its rule, including the recent protests.
Iran’s intelligence agency has accused western intelligence agencies, including those working for the C.I.A., of instigating the violence. In a joint statement with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards this week, it accused two female Iranian journalists who were instrumental in reporting Ms. Amini’s death of being foreign agents who received training by the U.S. to create chaos. Both women, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, have been detained by the authorities and their publications have denied the charges.
The United States has repeatedly condemned the harsh crackdown by the authorities, and has tried to remove Iran from some U.N. agencies. On Thursday, President Biden, speaking at a campaign rally in California, promised to “free Iran,” adding that the protesters would “free themselves pretty soon.”
His comments drew a harsh and immediate response from Iran’s hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi.
“Mr. President, Iran was undeniably liberated 43 years ago” Mr. Raisi said in a speech on Friday to the thousands of people gathered in front of the former U.S. embassy.
Mr. Raisi accused the United States of trying to meddle in Iranian affairs as it had with previous conflicts in countries like Libya and Syria.
“What a dream!” he said sardonically, adding that America’s involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam has led to “the most victims in the world.”
Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting.