Tehran, Iran — It was yet another mass demonstration outside the United States Embassy here. And, once again, ''Death to America'' was the main slogan.
But gone were the huge mobs of the revolutionary period. The old fervor had ebbed. Spontaneity had faded.
Instead, this government-organized rally to mark the start of the third year of the Iran-Iraq war appeared formal and controlled. The crowds were sparse. Most of the participants were schoolchildren. The slogans were shouted by mullahs using loudspeakers, then repeated by the demonstrators. A few blocks away life went on as usual.
Three and a half years of Islamic revolution have brought great changes in the everyday lives of Iranians.
On the surface, the regime is trying to show that everything is running smoothly; that things are back to normal. Regular policemen have replaced bearded revolutionary guards in the streets. The use of private cars is again allowed. And, despite hundreds of coup and assassination attempts, security deployment in the streets is very light.
But none of that can hide the underlying problems - especially the shortages, for instance, of food.
Except for fruits and vegetables there are shortages of almost every type of food. Each morning one can see long lines of women waiting to enter shops to buy meat, rice, sugar, or chicken.
To face the shortages and skyrocketing prices, the government has set up a rationing system. After having registered at a mosque, each head of family receives food coupons for himself and his dependents. Every citizen, for example , is entitled to 2 pounds of chicken per month at a price fixed by the government.
''I understand that this is the only way to face the present situation,'' says a woman, ''but we spend our time in the street to get food, while (Iranian leader) Imam Khomeini says that our role is to take care of the education of our children at home.''
Those who don't want to stay in the lines can buy almost everything on a parallel black market. The authorities don't care about it, and in every neighborhood the names of the ''black shopkeepers'' are known to everybody.
''The meat I buy with food coupons is almost uneatable,'' says a man. ''It's a mixture of fat, bones, and very low-quality meat. When I want good pieces of steak I have to shop on the black market at very high prices.''
Inflation during the last few years has been terrible. Though no exact figures are available, a rapid survey shows that rice bought without food coupons is 10 times the price it cost before the revolution.
It also becomes clear that unemployment has gone up and that civil servants' salaries have been cut, sometimes by 30 percent.
''One realizes how tough is the war that has been imposed on us,'' says Behzad Nabavi, the minister of industry. ''We didn't start the war. The Iraqis destroyed Khorramshahr, which was our main import port. We are now using other ports on the Persian Gulf, but they are not connected to Tehran by the railway.''
''In August last year, we had to reduce our foreign expenditures,'' says Mohsen Nourbakhsh, governor of Bank Markazi Iran, the country's central bank. ''We need to ration the food in order to finance the war.''
The social class that suffers the most from the present regime is the Westernized middle class, whose way of life has been dramatically changed despite all the promises made before the revolution. Although the prices of food and other necessities have soared, real estate values have remained stationary.
Women must wear veils on their hair in streets and offices. ''It's a uniform, '' says a girl. ''Even during the hottest days of the summer we wear long pants or thick panty-hose. Above all, we have to put on a long shirt.'' Men also should be dressed correctly: no short pants, no short sleeves.
An Islamic code of life governs everyone. A woman shouldn't shake a man's hand. In public, males and females should stay in separate lines, let alone kiss each other. Buses also are segregated.
''Last week, I went to a wedding party,'' a woman says. ''The Revolutionary Guards came in the middle of the evening and ordered me to go back home because I had makeup on.''
All governmental departments organize regular religious knowledge tests, which obliges their employees to spend their evenings learning the Koran. Booklets are already on sale that give the most frequently asked questions and their answers.
''They think they are Islamizing us,'' says woman. ''Yes, we are getting an Islamic face. But in the depth of our hearts we now hate that religion that is being imposed on us.''
After their job and their shopping, Tehranis go home, walking quickly or driving amid huge traffic jams worsened by the absence of public lighting. Foreign observers are struck by the gravity of their faces. Executions, bombings , and above all the war have hit every family.
Night life is almost nonexistent. Very few restaurants and movie theaters are open. So the Iranians stay at home and invite relatives or friends. Television programs are not exactly exciting. They're made up of lectures by mullahs, news from the front, or unedited interviews with government officials. Two weeks ago the President of the Republic was on the air for more than an hour and a half.
''In this condition, you understand why more and more Iranians tune in their radio set to BBC World Service or Voice of America.''