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How Iran's true believers pass the torch

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2007


Mohamad Reza Rashidi's devotion is measured by the plastic water bottle he brings to the cemetery every few days to wash the dusty gravestone of his favorite martyr.

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The young student was not even born when Iran's devastating 1980-88 war with Iraq ended, leaving 1 million dead and wounded. But the core values of its 1979 Islamic revolution, such as sacrifice and martyrdom, burn inside him as they do in so many of his peers.

"[Veterans] didn't go to war with arms ... they defeated the enemy with their beliefs," says Rashidi, who aims to become a "soldier of Imam Mahdi" – the hidden imam whom Shiites expect to return someday to bring justice.

"It could be a message to tell the US that we are not afraid of them," he adds, standing in the expansive Ahvaz war cemetery amid a sea of flapping Iranian flags. "If we were scared, there would not be so many martyrs."

Such words may sound like the rehearsed platitudes of flag-burning anti-US rallies in Tehran. But the voices coming from this area near Iran's border with Iraq, which bore the brunt of the fighting against Iraq two decades ago, speak of revolutionary ideals still deeply held. Hardline conservatives committed to these ideals typically rely on 20 percent of votes in Iran, analysts say – and much more in times of national crisis.

It is they who are passing the ideological torch of the Islamic Republic from father to son. At a time when tensions are running high with Iran – from speculation about US military action over Iran's nuclear program to Iran's detention of 15 British sailors – these true believers say they are ready, again, to sacrifice their lives to preserve Islamic rule.

"Those who believe will still fight to their last breath," says Haji Ahmad Palash, who lost a son and brother to the war. Another son and brother were disabled; yet another brother spent 10 years as a POW in Iraq.

"If a war happens now, we are nine brothers – minus one – and we will still go to war," he vows. "My whole family is ready."

Such devotion is not universal in Iran, where the uncompromising views of stalwart revolutionaries – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among them – collide against reform-leaning liberals who prefer Western-style civil society. That group often sent their children out of Iran in the 1980s – an act seen as sacrilege by those who gave up families to fight Iraq.

The division, manifested at times in violent street clashes, has shaped Iran's tug-of-war politics since the first landslide victory of reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. And it has made passing on the ideological torch even more of a priority for the right wing, especially at a time when Iran is trying to bolster itself as a regional power.

"Iranian society is divided into three groups: the Hizbullahi believers, those in the middle, and those who don't believe in and protest against the system because of small problems," says an intelligence officer in Ahvaz who volunteered for the war effort at age 11, and could not be named. "If there is a war [against the US], the believers will fight, and many in the middle and some in the third group will join them."

Such beliefs are particularly potent at this time of year, as Iranians celebrate their New Year, and students and families take organized trips, steeped in ideology and patriotism to the former front lines, called "Rahian-e Nour," or "Followers of the Light Path." Pilgrims climb on old tanks and hear of miracles, sacrifice, the power of prayer and selflessness – all of which aim to reinforce commitment to Iran's Islamic system.

At the battlefields, witnesses say that some people fill small plastic bags with front-line soil as a reminder of their journey to the root of "sacred defense." Officials say 600,000 Iranians visited last year; the figure this year is up 20 percent.

"The graves of unknown soldiers in many countries are symbols of national pride and love of country," says Hamidreza Taraghi, an influential conservative and former lawmaker in Tehran. "The difference in our war zones is that patriotism has been linked to the religious beliefs of the warriors. What they saw during the war – the assistance of God to them – forms the basis of their beliefs."

High among those is adoration of Hussein, the third Shiite imam whose force was far outnumbered in Karbala, in modern Iraq, in AD 680. Hussein's martyrdom created a model of divine sacrifice used to energize legions of Iranian troops who often attacked in waves.

"They transformed those war zones into a national and religious sacred place," says Mr. Taraghi. Visitors today "are the same young people that would support the country if it goes to another war. It's very nice to see [them] praying on that soil, kissing that earth that has been wet by the blood of those soldiers."