Iran marked the 34th anniversary of its Islamic revolution today with mass rallies, nuclear defiance, and anti-Western proclamations that it is defeating all "treacherous enemies."
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected Western pressure to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program "at the point of a gun." His words echoed a rejection of bilateral US-Iran talks made last week by Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"You should remove this gun pointed at the Iranian nation, [then] I myself will negotiate with you," Mr. Ahmadinejad told flag-waving crowds at Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, amid occasional chants of "Death to America! Death to Israel!"
"Negotiations must be based on justice and respect, not [on] pressure and imposition," he said, according to a simultaneous translation on state-run PressTV. The West had "failed" to prevent Iran from "going nuclear, but we are nuclear," he added. "Now it's not time for confrontation. The best thing ... is cooperation."
Iran says its advanced nuclear program aims only to create peaceful power; the United States, Israel, and many European countries suspect a hidden weapon effort, and want to prevent any chance of Iran acquiring an atomic bomb.
While the country's leadership has rejected direct US contact for now, Iran has agreed to resume talks to curb its nuclear program with six world powers – including the US – in Kazakhstan on Feb. 26.
Iran's annual revolution birthday celebrations are used to highlight the regime's official narrative of independence and resistance; of technological and foreign-policy progress despite ever-increasing sanctions; and ending two centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers with the 1979 overthrow of the pro-West Shah.
It is also the highest profile platform given an Iranian president on Iran's political calendar, akin to an American State of the Union message. This year it comes ahead of June presidential elections, which will spell the end of Ahmadinejad's tumultuous eight years in office.
For this president, the annual event – which always draws tens of thousands of Iranians from across the political spectrum, in Tehran and other cities – has been defined by rhetorical overreach, and claims of great advances with facts later challenged by rivals.
In years past, Ahmadinejad has declared Iran a "superpower, real and true," and voiced his belief that the Shiite messiah, Imam Mahdi, will return imminently – a view seen as superstitious by many in Iran, clerics, and ordinary people alike.
He made reference again this year to the Mahdi, hailing the 1979 revolution as an "awakening of the human spirit," rich with "divine values" that was integral to enabling the speedy return of the Shiite Muslim messiah.
"Today Iran has gone nuclear, and the enemies of our nation don't like this," said Ahmadinejad, adding that the "victories" of the Iranian people were achieved "with the blessing of God, and blessings of Imam Mahdi."
Cementing a legacy
Heralding what he called a "golden age" for Iran, Ahmadinejad listed an array of facts, suggesting that not only had the Islamic Republic advanced exponentially in the generation since the revolution, but also that his government – despite sanctions that have crippled the economy – had made further exponential gains.
Cement production before the revolution, for example, stood at 7 million tons. Before his election in 2005 it was 32 million tons, yet today, Ahmadinejad said, it is 80 million tons.
Similar progress had been registered in steel production and car manufacturing and petrochemicals. Energy production, he claimed, had gone from 7,000 megawatts in 1979 to 38,000 MW in 2005, to more than 70,000 MW today with an aim of 86,000 MW by the summer.
Ahmadinejad did not speak of Iran's soaring inflation, plummeting currency, and claimed incorrectly that – despite an oil embargo since mid-2012 – Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels per day, a figure 1 million higher than the real number. (Editor's note: The original story misstated Ahmadinejad's claim.)
Iran's launch last week of a monkey into space and its safe return put it in an elite club of "four or five" nations on earth, the Iranian president said, in a launch that sent a "message of peace and friendship for all mankind."
While Iran soared, Ahmadinejad crowed, the West was in decline, with "capitalism breathing its last breath."
The populist president – whose disputed reelection in 2009 brought millions of Iranians onto the street in protest – is today embroiled in an political slugfest with rivals influential in the regime, and has threatened to reveal evidence of corruption that reaches to the top.
He did not mention that two presidential candidates from 2009 – both former senior figures in the revolutionary regime – remain under house arrest; the reformist Green Movement they led accused of "sedition" spawned by foreigners and violently crushed.
Ahmadinejad also did not mention Iran's poor human rights record or political prisoners, when describing how the "cruel pressures" of Iran's enemies had "failed to disrupt" the Islamic revolution's mission of reviving “the basic rights of people, including freedom and even perfection."
"Without freedom and free elections, it would mean nothing," the president said. "The country and the establishment belong to the people.... No one should think that people's vote is only a piece of paper."