Maybe the best way to approach the question is to recognise that the stories are not separate.
Put bluntly, as we did at the start of Wednesday, this was the regime's big push for a display that it was in control. Unsettled by the failure over 6+ months to quell opposition and rocked in particular by the high-visibility takeover of Ashura by its foes on Sunday, the Government responded quickly with the claim of credibility.
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Thus the call to its supporters to appear on Wednesday, surrounded by the loudest trumpets of state media. It will still be debated today whether the response was tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, whether their appearance was voluntary or "bought" with free transport, free foods, and days off from school and work, whether the footage from outside Tehran was genuine or even significant --- see Josh Shahryar's analysis for EA --- but on the surface, the regime was able to put up images of a filled Enghelab Square in the capital and rallies in cities such as Tabriz and Shiraz.
What may be most striking, however, was the tone and messages surrounding the event. We noted yesterday that the regime has been showing its "negative" strength by detaining and condemning the opposition but has not been as forthcoming in a "positive" campaign showing how it is providing for the welfare of Iranians.
The Tehran rally did nothing to dispel that impression. There was nothing, for example, to assure the audience of the merits of President Ahmadinejad and his Cabinet, an absence brought out in the post-rally discussion on Press TV. The "positive" extended only as far as "the Supreme Leader is your rightful, just, and magnanimous Leader".
Even that message, given by Ayatollah Alamalhoda of Mashaad, was secondary to the black opening. There are the forces of Satan. The forces are the rioters. Satan is the United States. And Britain. And other foreign governments. And the terrorist MKO (whose political wing, it should be noted, played into the regime's hand with its ill-timed assertion of a key role in the Ashura protests). Stand against all of them.
That, at least to my outside ears, does not sound like an attempt to gain legitimacy through assurance or hope. It strikes the tone of fear. There is even the unstated message --- especially for those who were not at the rally but watched it on state television --- "You may not have complete faith in us, but look at the other guys."
Which brings us to what may have been the second part of the regime campaign. The question this morning: did Government officials feed the story of the flight of "two opposition leaders" to the Islamic Republic News Agency? If they did so, then this is the clumsy fulfillment of an overall message that was to be displayed yesterday: we have threatened them, we have condemned them, we have vanquished them.
Only this step in the strategy did not work. Within an hour, the story was fraying, as the Mousavi and Karroubi camps, despite the Government restrictions on them (their top advisors arrested, their houses and offices surrounded) were able to get out the message that the two men were still in Tehran and still "fighting for the Iranian people". IRNA did not follow up its claim, and overnight other state outlets like Fars and Press TV said the tale was untrue.
Which means that, as Enghelab Square and other squares across are empty of demonstrators this morning, that the regime has the problem of "What Will You Do Now?" After the hundreds of arrests since Sunday, after the fanfare that "millions" of Iranians will turn out to erase all doubt of the political stability of the Supreme Leader (just to repeat, Ahmadinejad has been left behind), after all the invective and threats of the foreign-terrorist-Satanic menace to Iran, legitimacy has not been assured.
Of course, the opposition faces the same question of "What Will You Do Now?". But the opposition has the luxury of taking days, even weeks to make its next high-profile appearance. The regime does not: it is supposed to rule each and every day.
And it is a rule that weakens each and every day when the primary message is all about "them" and not about what the Government is doing for the good of those Iranians who supposedly turned out for it on Wednesday.