Iran has staged major rallies across the country to mark the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in a show of government strength after months of anti-regime protests which have rattled the theocratic establishment.
Hundreds of thousands of conservatives took to the streets of Tehran and other big cities and towns on Saturday, carrying pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who has been the main target of pro-democracy protesters.
Speaking in Azadi — or Freedom — Square, a focal point during the 1979 revolution, President Ebrahim Raisi said the size of the crowd showed “the failure of the enemy,” a reference to the US, “and the victory of the revolution”. Like other members of the republic’s leadership, he accused the US of meddling in Iran’s affairs.
“Our people look to see whether Americans’ presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon has given them life or not,” Raisi said. “You want to target our national solidarity . . . those who are out in the streets today are Iran’s great nation.”
The rally is the latest sign that Iranian society is becoming increasingly polarised between pro and anti-regime forces.
One of the biggest and most enduring anti-regime demonstrations happened in September last year, in reaction to the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody after she was arrested for not properly observing the Islamic dress code.
More than 300 people died, including 44 children, during four months of protests across the country, according to Amnesty International. Four protesters were hanged. Thousands more were arrested.
But with unrest waning, the regime feels more in control, analysts say. Ayatollah Khamenei last week agreed to pardon tens of thousands of prisoners including some of those arrested during the protests.
Some prominent figures arrested during or before the unrest have been released over the past week.
Farhad Meysami, who had been in jail since 2018 for supporting protests against Iran’s headscarf policy, was freed. Pictures showing him severely emaciated after a lengthy hunger strike have shocked the nation.
It is not clear how many political prisoners have been freed. Some prominent figures and journalists remain behind bars as do anti-regime protesters on death row who have been accused of killing members of the security forces.
Raisi said university students, academics, sports figures and actors who “face restrictions due to their illegal activities” in the latest unrest would be able to return to work “soon”.
The regime’s latest measures have not satisfied the opposition. Mir-Hossein Moussavi, a former prime minister who has been under house arrest since 2011, released a statement this month saying he had shifted from his previous position of full implementation of the constitution under the Islamic republic. Instead, he said there had to be a new constitution to establish a system which could embrace Iranians from all ethnicities, religions and political inclinations.
Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour, a reformist sociologist, said that critics of the regime could argue that if they were allowed to hold peaceful demonstrations they could bring out a bigger crowd than those who took part in Saturday’s event.
But “this number of people in the rally showed why the state has been able to curb street protests and is still able to bring out its supporters,” he said. He warned that Iranian society faced “difficult challenges ahead”.