TEHRAN - Iranian security forces unleashed a crushing sweep against opposition protesters Thursday as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution to defy the West and boast his country was now a "nuclear state." The massive show of force appeared to give authorities the upper hand on the most important day of the Iranian political calendar.
The state-backed rally dwarfed anti-government gatherings, which were far smaller than other outpourings of dissent in recent months.
Police clashed with anti-government protesters in several sites around Tehran, firing tear gas to disperse them and paintballs to mark them for arrest. Gangs of hard-liners also attacked senior opposition figures - including the wife of the head of the reform movement.
Still, the day's events showed that authorities must rely on full-scale pressures to keep a lid on demonstrations, and any breathing room may be limited. Opposition supporters are certain to regroup and look for weak spots in the ruling system.
In his address to a crowd of hundreds of thousands - many bused into Tehran's Freedom Square - Ahmadinejad sought to shift attention from the nation's political troubles, boasting instead about Iran's advancements in nuclear technology. He also dismissed new U.S. sanctions and denigrated President Barack Obama's efforts to repair relations.
Iran has the capacity to make weapons-grade nuclear fuel if it chooses, the Iranian leader declared, adding that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium to 20 percent and was now a "nuclear state."
"We have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or 80 percent but we don't enrich [to this level] because we don't need it," he said. "When we say we do not manufacture the bomb, we mean it, and we do not believe in manufacturing a bomb. If we wanted to manufacture a bomb, we would announce it."
The Obama administration dismissed Iran's contention it is enriching uranium at a higher level, adding that such claims were disturbing.