Hundreds of riot police officers in Iran beat protesters and fired tear gas Monday to contain the most significant street protests since the end of the 2009 uprising there, as security forces around the region moved — sometimes brutally — to prevent new unrest in sympathy with the opposition victory in Egypt.
The size of the protests in Iran was unclear. Witness accounts and news reports from inside the country suggested that perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 demonstrators in several cities defied strong warnings and took to the streets. The unrest was an acute embarrassment for Iranian leaders, who had sought to portray the toppling of two secular rulers, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, as a triumph of popular support for Islam in the Arab world. They had refused permission to Iranian opposition groups seeking to march in solidarity with the Egyptians, and warned journalists and photographers based in the country, with success, not to report on the protests.
Iranian demonstrators portrayed the Arab insurrections as a different kind of triumph. “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyid Ali!” Iranian protesters chanted in Persian on videos posted online that appeared to be from Tehran, referring to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But unlike in Egypt, the Iranian authorities have shown that they will not hesitate to crush demonstrations with deadly force. And other governments across the Middle East and the Persian Gulf also moved aggressively to stamp out protests on Monday.
The police in Bahrain fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters from the Shiite majority population. So much tear gas was fired that the officers themselves vomited. In Yemen, hundreds of student protesters clashed with pro-government forces in the fourth straight day of protests.
In the central Iranian city of Isfahan, many demonstrators were arrested after security forces clashed with them, reports said, and sporadic messages from inside Iran indicated that there had also been protests in Shiraz, Mashhad and Rasht.
Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian establishment have tried to depict the Arab movements as a long-awaited echo of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though Islamist parties had a low profile in both the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. The Iranian opposition has painted the Arab protests as an echo of its own anti-government movement in 2009, when citizens demanded basic rights like freedom of assembly and freedom of speech after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.