Determined chants of "Death to America" rang out in city after city in Iran Tuesday, even as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a mass rally in Tehran that Iran was "ready" to talk to its arch-enemy if the US showed "real change."
Speaking as Iranians marked the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Mr. Ahmadinejad declared Iran to be "officially … a real and genuine superpower," and that the "shadow of threat has been removed forever" from the Islamic Republic.
"From now on, which power in the world can be found that has the courage to threaten the Iranian nation?" Ahmadinejad asked to cheers.
Facing tens of thousands of flag-waving Iranians at Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square, Ahmadinejad offered his first response to President Barack Obama's comments Monday that he was "looking for openings" with Iran.
"It is quite clear that real change [from the US] must be fundamental and not tactical. It is clear the Iranian nation welcomes real changes," he said. "The Iranian nation is ready to hold talks but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."
Despite the nod toward dialogue, the message from state-run TV was unrelenting. The afternoon news broadcast on IRIB Channel 1 devoted 25 minutes to scenes of Tehran and huge rallies across the country, with primary emphasis in every city on the "Death to America" chant.
That strident tone failed to reach one father, his flag-waving daughter astride his neck. He asked where this correspondent came from, and then replied: "America? Let us be together."
A centerpiece of the anniversary – dubbed the "Day of God" by official media – was a replica of the rocket that in the past week launched Iran's first satellite, the Omid [Hope] into orbit. With blue-painted nose-cone and fins, and Iranian flag, it was a graphic display of Iran's entry into space, which people flocked to photograph.
"Today, with God's grace, the Iranian scientists have broken the chains of humiliation and the scientific monopoly of the world arrogance [the West]," Ahmadinejad said of the space program, which US officials say could enhance Iran's missile capability.
After a generation of deadlock, both the US and Iran are signaling a wish for change – but requiring that the other side first yield to longstanding demands. Mr. Obama wants Iran to give up disputed nuclear ambitions and stop supporting "terrorism," a position vilified on TV here as "Bush's words coming out of Obama's mouth."
Ahmadinejad has said that the US must apologize for numerous "crimes" against Iran, end sanctions, withdraw all troops from the region, and give up its "imperialism."
Iran's decision to talk will ultimately be made by Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, in keeping with rule by the velayat-e faqih, or supreme religious rule. On Saturday, he said a large public turnout "will make the enemy understand he has failed."
The day is one of triumph for many Iranians, who deem this anniversary a national holiday even if they complain that the revolution has not achieved its promise of freedom and prosperity.
Entire families walked for miles to the event in Tehran, holding placards that read "30 springs of freedom, 30 years of pride," and wearing their nationalism on their sleeve. Steady chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" marked routes to the square, along with anti-US banners and paintings criticizing Israel's war in Gaza. State TV showed a shoe-throwing contest, with posters of US and Israeli leaders as targets.
But also on display was the polarization that will shape the June presidential race between Ahmadinejad and his main rival, reformist former President Mohamad Khatami. None of the senior politicians who joined the march created such a reaction as the man who won by landslides in 1997 and 2001 on vows of looser social constraints and restoring rule of law.
Mr. Khatami stepped into the thick crowd. As he passed, many Iranians hailed him, even commenting repeatedly on how well dressed the cleric was. But there were others who yelled "Liar! Liar!" and young ideologues who questioned his devotion to Iran's Islamic system and shouted "Death to the person against the velayat-e faqih!"
A few men began deliberately ramming Khatami's group from behind, adding to the chaos. The candidate and his entourage, after being refused entry at the gates of Sharif University, eventually were able to get out of the crowd, with Khatami's bodyguards whisking him into another building.
The pro-Ahmadinejad shouts that rose were swiftly matched by Khatami supporters in a noisy face-off; a scene reminiscent of those that lead to clashes between reformists and hard-liners during Khatami's presidency.
"The policy [Khatami] has would take the country to a dead end; with Ahmadinejad our standing in the world has only risen," said rightwing chanter Ismail Abdi. "This is not just the word of one student, but millions of Iranians." Voters, he said, "will question making friends with imperialism."
"Most of the people you see here are the friends of Khatami," said engineer Mehdi Rajaie, who took up the shout for Khatami.
Banker Hamid Jalali also praised Khatami, and yelled for him. "Ahmadinejad thinks he is strong with 10 million votes, but Khatami got more than 20 million," he said, still sweating from the exertion of the crowd. "People are angry with this economic situation and think Ahmadinejad's policies are wrong. People are 100 percent going to … turn away from Ahmadinejad."