How Iran's true believers pass the torch

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.

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."

Behind those front lines, 45 miles from the border, the cities of Ahvaz and Dezful claim stature as two that have produced hosts of martyrs – and those willing to follow in their footsteps.

In Ahvaz cemetery, banners carry portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution and wartime chief, and Iran's current supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One banner reads: "Hussein is my guiding light, and the ark of my salvation." Another: "Martyrdom is the art of the men of God."

Some graves appear never to have been washed. Others receive constant care, like the dark slab for Sayed Ali Akbar Fatemehzadeh, who "attained the holy rank of martyrdom" at 17, according to the inscription.

"He was a great man, the nation owes him ... because if martyrs were not here, we would not have Iran," says Ali Akbar Khoshnazar, named after the martyr, a friend of his father. Ali Akbar, who is 18, came here alone, poured water over the stone, and prayed. "When I come here, my soul relaxes," says Mr. Khoshnazar, an electronics graduate who wears a silver religious bracelet. "My father says he was a spiritual person."

Indeed, the young martyr played an key role in the life of Khoshnazar's father, Gholamreza Khoshnazar. Early in the war, the father was 16 when he saw a 12-year-old guard with a heavy machine gun in his street. Uncomfortable that a boy was "guarding" him, he signed up for the volunteer Basiji force at the mosque.

The father and his friend Ali Akbar fought and studied in turns, and then were together in one offensive battle. Ali Akbar's unit left 30 minutes before Gholamreza's. "He was hit with a rocket and half his face was gone – that was a severe shock to me, because we really liked each other," recalls Gholamreza, a print-shop owner whose fist-length beard exhibits a plug of gray. "Then I promised God: If I was given a son, I would name him Ali Akbar."

Gholamreza survived, despite wounds that have left him widely scarred, and at one point "5 percent from death," he says.

"Our generation, we ... would go back to the war as soon as we could walk," he says. "When we were on the front, we would wake in the night, do our ablutions, and pray. The only thing we would ask of God was for the health of Imam Khomeini and the return of Imam Mahdi. It was a very holy spirit in those days."

But the price was high. Gholamreza flips through a worn photo album, damaged by water when he threw it into a river during a fit of trauma a couple years ago. The book – and his own sanity, Gholamreza admits – were saved by son Ali Akbar.

"Some of my friends here have become martyrs," says Gholamreza, pointing at snapshots of comrades riding on tanks, and in trenches, shooting their weapons.

Gholamreza pauses reverently over a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, given to his family during the war. And then a coin, stuck to the page with tape, that depicts the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, presented by a commander, who said it had come directly "from the Imam [Khomeini]."

"For me, a follower of Imam Khomeini ... it was my duty to be a martyr, to defend my country against people who wanted to destroy civilization," says Gholamreza. Then, he "was not so knowledgeable about martyrdom, and didn't know what a delicious fruit it is; it slipped from my grasp."

"But today, I would like to do the right thing ... and return to God," says Gholamreza. "I told my son what a good friend I have had [in martyr Ali Akbar], and naturally this love has been passed to my son, so he goes to the martyr and tells him his problems."

In a view widely shared here, Gholamreza says that Iran was able to repel Iraq and the "imperialistic powers [that] attacked us" – a reference to US and European support for Saddam Hussein – and will do so again if necessary.

"Muslims think this way: Our body is not ours, but God has lent it to us and he can take it whenever he wants," says Haji Khezeir Bavi, a veteran, as he prepared to board a bus to work as a "Rahian-e Nour" volunteer. "Why not satisfy God and die for a good cause?"

That thinking drove countless men to the front lines, says Mr. Bavi, who worked at the cemetery in Ahvaz for 12 years. After a burial, fellow fighters would say: " 'Keep a space for us, next to this one. We will be martyrs,' " recalls Bavi. "And one month later, their bodies would come."

The younger generation will be just as committed to battle today, says veteran Abdulrahman Esivand. "If our leader Ayatollah Khamenei calls for battle, you would still see 12-year-olds marching to war."

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