TEHRAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iranians marched toward a Tehran square on Monday in a banned rally supporting popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, but their way was blocked by police and security forces, witnesses said.
The march was a test of strength for the reformist opposition, which has not taken to the streets since December 2009, when eight people were killed. But Iranian security forces are still unlikely to hesitate to use all means to stop any protest.
Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi took advantage of official Iranian backing for the huge Arab street protests to call their own demonstrations in solidarity, but authorities refused their request.
The opposition nevertheless renewed the call for the rally. Iranian authorities have warned the opposition to avoid creating a "security crisis" by reviving protests that erupted after the vote, the biggest unrest in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
Hundreds of demonstrators marched down Azadi (Freedom) and Enghelab streets, both forming a wide boulevard leading to Azadi Square, a traditional rallying point for protests dominated by a huge white marble arch, in central Tehran.
"Hundreds of people are marching toward Azadi and Enghelab streets," one witness said. "Hundreds of riot police are in the area as well but there are no clashes."
Hundreds of marchers also gathered in the central city of Isfahan, witnesses said.
Police and state security men were prepared in Tehran.
"There are dozens of police and security forces in Vali-ye Asr Avenue ... They have blocked entrances of metro stations in the area," a witness told Reuters earlier, referring to a large thoroughfare that cuts through the Iranian capital.
Mousavi's website, Kalame, said the opposition leader and his wife Zahra Rahnavard were unable to join the march.
"Mirhossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard are still trying to leave their house and join the protests... but security forces are preventing them. Security forces have even threatened Mousavi's guards to not allow them to leave the house by any means," the website said.
"THE NATION'S DEMANDS"
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia an "Islamic awakening," akin to the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah.
But the opposition see the unrest as being more similar to their own protests following the June 2009 election which they say was rigged in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Revolutionary Guards, fiercely loyal to Khamenei, put down the 2009 protests. Two people were hanged and scores of opposition supporters jailed.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, on a visit to Tehran, called on Middle Eastern governments to listen to the demands of their people, although he did not refer to Iran directly.
"We see that sometimes when the leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the nations' demands, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands," Gul told a news conference alongside Ahmadinejad.
Any use of heavy force to stop the marches in Iran during Gul's visit could be an embarrassment for Turkey.
However, Ankara, officially an ally of the West, was one of the first governments to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his 2009 re-election and is seeking to triple the volume of trade with its neighbor despite U.N., U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear activity.
Iranian authorities deny doctoring the 2009 election results and accuse opposition leaders of being part of a Western plot to overthrow the Islamic system.
"They are incapable of doing a damn thing," the hardline Kayhan newspaper quoted Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi as saying, echoing words used by the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to refer to the United States. The opposition is "guided by Iran's enemies abroad," Moslehi said.
(Editing by Jon Hemming and Mark Heinrich)