Many Iranians say revolutionary ideals still unmet

In Tehran Monday, tens of thousands celebrated the 29th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
A woman walks by a poster of the revolution hanging on the fence of Tehran University.

To honor the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, the Bayuni family spent days preparing for the annual anti-American effigy contest. First prize: a gold coin stamped with an image of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

So as tens of thousands of Iranians rallied in central Tehran on Monday, the family added entries to the competition: one showed Iran choking America and Israel; another showed the United States capturing all the globe except Iran, which was protected by barbed wire.

Many effigies – and countless homemade US and Israeli flags – went up in flames, but not theirs: "We are keeping them," says wife Sara, "to see what the US will do with the world."

Heated anti-US rhetoric has been a constant in Iranian political theater for a generation. But despite the fanfare Monday, this widespread show of nationalist support is mixed with disappointment that the revolution has not lived up to its original promises of freedom, justice, and prosperity.

"I work very hard all year just to earn enough for the next rent rise, and still I do not have a weekend free to be with my wife," says Reza, a government employee who says he is religious. "I don't have peace of mind. With all our natural resources, I have nothing. I feel disappointed."

He says one perennial problem is mismanagement, taken to new levels by the conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose ministerial picks have often been rejected by parliament due to lack of experience. "They choose you for a job based only on your loyalty to the revolution," says Reza. "Not because of your expertise."

In his speech Monday to honor the revolution, Mr. Ahmadinejad spoke defiantly, proclaiming that Iran would not back down "one iota" from its nuclear program and would launch two rockets and a space satellite in coming months. But he ended by saying that he was trying to cope with searing social and economic problems of high unemployment and soaring prices – campaign promises for "justice" he first made in 2005.

On the streets during the anniversary celebration, a kaleidoscope of color with balloons and banners created a festive air to mark what is officially called the "Glorious Victory of the Islamic Revolution" 29 years ago. Back then, the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini led to the overthrow of the US-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; this day in 1979 marked when the Shah's military stopped fighting.

A broad sampling of voices found that people from across Iran's divided social spectrum had come to "revitalize the ideas of the revolution," to support Iran's current supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, or because they saw it as a national or religious duty.

"Many people have sacrificed a lot for this revolution, so we have come to give it a rebirth," says high school student Mohammad Parvin, who came with several Western-looking boys from his class. Among the crewcuts favored by religious militiamen were spike-haired young men who are at times targeted by the morality police.

"We have come to defend our revolution, to show that we are always backing it," says Alireza Dadpour, a fellow student with an Iranian flag draped over his back. "A lot of blood was spilled. We want to honor that."

State television showed large turnouts in cities across Iran, with chants of "Death to America" and Israel overshadowing those in support of the Islamic system or current leadership. The official IRNA news agency, which has overstated turnouts in past demonstrations, said Ahmadinejad spoke to a "million-strong gathering." Perhaps hundreds of thousands across the country took to the streets.

Clad in black and carrying a portrait of the supreme leader, Akram Azari Khameneh says she never missed one anniversary rally in 29 years and supports "my country, my religion, and my leader." Her son was "martyred" during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; she says that she helped out in Ahvaz, a city near the front that was regularly struck with Iraqi rockets. "People have become more aware, and they feel the US is more of an enemy."

Parliamentary elections next month will test the conservative grip on power, but she says the disqualification already of more than 2,000 reformist candidates is irrelevant.

"What matters to us is our leader. Whoever Khamenei accepts, we will accept," says Mrs. Khameneh. "You can see this with your own eyes; 90 percent of people believe this way. This march proves it." Those who believe otherwise "are also living in this country. I hope God will help them."

"There is no system that will have 100 percent people's backing [but] Iran is one of the only independent countries against the US," says Reza, the government worker. A large rally turnout "is going to scare our enemies and reassure our friends."

Another woman, also named Akram, sits with her family on grass near the monument to 2,500 years of Persian history. "We are the followers of Khomeini's path [but] we've had a lot of hardships since the revolution," she says.

While her daughter, Maryam, says the rally will "show our might to the enemy," she has her own concerns. "As a girl I have no future. I am a student but do not know about a job."

Politicians of all stripes – reformists and conservatives alike – have let them down, says the family. The reform-leaning former President Mohammad Khatami caused Iranians to lose their faith in Islam, they charge, which they see as a continuing problem.

"When Ahmadinejad was a candidate we had hopes, but neither he nor the revolution fulfilled expectations," says Akram. "Hope is with God. We have no hope in these guys anymore."

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