Reporting from Beirut — Iran's opposition leaders Thursday called off a weekend demonstration, stunning supporters who had been plastering walls with graffiti and distributing leaflets to promote the event.
In a communique posted to reformist news websites, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi said they were calling off an anti-government rally they had promoted for weeks "in order to safeguard the lives and properties of the people."
The rally had been called to mark the one-year anniversary of disputed elections that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the winner over Mousavi and Karroubi.
The election results sparked months of largely peaceful demonstrations, which the Ahmadinejad government ended by brutally cracking down on protesters, jailing dissidents and launching a propaganda campaign to paint the opposition as foreign dupes. Authorities have also executed a number of activists, inspiring fear among anti-government forces.
President Obama referred to the June 12, 2009, vote and its violent aftermath Wednesday in a speech announcing a fourth round of United Nations sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
"An event that should have been remembered for how the Iranian people participated with remarkable enthusiasm," he said, "will instead be remembered for how the Iranian government brutally suppressed dissent and murdered the innocent."
The exact reason for cancelling Saturday's rally remained unclear. Mousavi and Karroubi said they were prompted to do so after their application for a permit to hold the rally received no reply. But no one had expected the same Interior Ministry that sanctified Ahmadinejad's reelection to approve an anti-government protest.
Pro-government militiamen, many bused in from other parts of the country during a commemoration last week, and uniformed security forces wielding clubs have been crowding around key public spaces in the Tehran, the Iranian capital, menacing passersby ahead of the anniversary.
"The reports received indicate that, once again, hard-liners and repressors are being organized to attack the defenseless and innocent people," the joint statement said. "We ask the people and the protesters to demand and follow up on their rightful demands and requests through less costly and more effective methods."
But few expected the government to respond to any protests with anything but violence.
The cancellation came a day after the United Nations Security Council approved the sanctions. Iran's political establishment tends to band together when facing international political pressure. But neither Mousavi nor Karroubi referred to the nuclear program.
Instead, they hinted that they were calling off the rally in response to "the report by the representatives of the reformist groups" that had applied for the permit, suggesting they had received ominous warnings.
Some opposition supporters praised Mousavi and Karroubi for showing responsibility. Others were disappointed and angered.
"But why?" one demanded in comments posted in response to the declaration on Mousavi's website, Kaleme.com. "We are ready to die. You shouldn't cancel. This is going to lower my spirit and that of others. It's dangerous for the movement to cancel the rally."
Mousavi last year tried to call off a June 15 rally hours before it was scheduled, yet millions of Iranians defied security forces, pro-government Basiji militiamen and dire threats broadcast by government-controlled news outlets to take to the streets, filling Tehran's massive Azadi Square.
Special correspondent Becky Lee Katz contributed to this report.