Tehran, Iran Tens of thousands of protesters — many decked out in the green colors of the reform movement and chanting “Death to the dictator!” — rallied Friday in defiance of Iran’s Islamic leadership, clashing with police and confronting state-run anti-Israel rallies.
In the first major opposition protests in two months, demonstrators marching shoulder-to-shoulder raised their hands in V-for-victory signs on main boulevards and squares throughout the capital.
Lines of police, security forces and plainclothes Basij militiamen kept the two sides apart in most cases. At times they waded into the protesters with baton charges and tear gas volleys. The demonstrators responded by throwing stones and bricks, and setting tires ablaze.
Hard-liners attacked two senior opposition leaders who joined the protests. Former pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami was shoved and jostled, gripping his black turban to keep it from being knocked off as supporters rushed in to protect him, pushing away the attackers and hustling him away.
The protests were a significant show of defiance after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explicitly banned anti-government marches on Quds Day, an annual memorial created by Iran’s Islamic Republic to show support for the Palestinians and denounce Israel. Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem.
It was also a show of survival. The opposition has been hit hard by a fierce crackdown in which hundreds have been arrested since disputed June 12 presidential elections sparked Iran’s worst political turmoil in decades. Friday’s protests could escalate the confrontation — hard-line clerics have demanded the arrest of any opposition leaders who defy Khamenei’s order and back protests on Quds Day.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who the opposition contends won re-election by fraud, delivered a nationally televised address, railing against Israel and the West.
Speaking before a crowd of supporters at Tehran University, he questioned whether the Holocaust was a “real event” and called it a pretext for the creation of Israel. He said the Jewish state was founded on “a lie and a mythical claim.”
Outside the university, while the speech blared on loudspeakers, opposition protesters shouted “liar, liar!”
U.S. officials denounced the Iranian leader’s comments on the Holocaust, which Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called “hateful.” She said President Barack Obama would not meet with Ahmadinejad during next week’s gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.
In protests around Tehran and other Iranian cities, demonstrators chanted “Not Gaza, not Lebanon — our life is for Iran” in a challenge of the government’s priority of supporting Palestinian militants in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas instead of focusing on problems at home.