Ebrahim Noroozi /AP
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians march in an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which toppled the late pro-US Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in Tehran, Feb. 10, 2017. The march follows Revolution Avenue, toward the Azadi monument in Azadi (Freedom) Square.

On Iran's revolution day, a message sent with bigger crowds, fewer anti-US taunts

In protest message to President Trump, hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched in a show of national unity that crossed social and political lines.

On the Islamic Republic’s 38th birthday, perhaps most significant was what did not happen amid the mass rallies that traditionally mark the day.

As Iran celebrated the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic revolution Friday, some American flags were burned, some effigies of President Trump were desecrated, and chants of “Death to America!” rose from hard-liners in the crowds.

But even as hundreds of thousands marched – turning out in larger numbers than usual, to send a message to Mr. Trump in a show of national unity that crossed social and political lines – the streets were not ablaze with anti-American feeling, nor was President Hassan Rouhani’s speech replete with anti-US fulminations.

Indeed, a social media campaign to stop flag burning took off beforehand on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #LoveBeyondFlags.

That rhetorical caution – including the distinct lack of props used in the past to highlight Iranian achievements, such as scale models of Iranian missiles, a space rocket, centrifuges for enriching uranium, and even the US RQ-170 stealth drone captured by Iran in 2011 – reflects a cautious wait-and-see attitude by Tehran about Trump and his policies, even against a backdrop of terse exchanges and warnings between Iran and the US in recent days.

“I am against the death slogans and the flag burning,” a cleric among the marchers told a correspondent for the Monitor.

“If we are to send the enemy a message, this huge turnout is strong enough. Burning flags will only hurt the American people, which is not what we want,” says the cleric, who would not give his name. “Our young people are now mature enough. They are not here because they were forced. I came out this year one hour earlier to show my presence.”

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei set the stage for the rallies on Tuesday, when he mockingly thanked Trump for showing the “true face of America” with his bid to impose bans on immigrants and refugees from seven countries. Mr. Khamenei said that heavy turnout at rallies would be Iran’s response.

Iranian citizens are by far the most numerous of those immediately affected by Trump’s ban, which remains blocked after the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals refused to reinstate it Thursday. The White House had also warned Tehran it was “on notice” after a Jan. 29 ballistic missile test, and imposed further modest sanctions.

Trump tweeted that Iran was “playing with fire.”

Pushing back by showing up

Friday’s large crowds in Tehran included a broad mix of Iranians. The presence of the more devout and conservative classes was evident in the men sporting distinctive scarves and women clad in black chadors. But many others marching alongside them wore stylish and brightly colored clothes – and loosely affixed headscarves – preferred by more Westernized, moderate Iranians.

“I have never seen such a massive turnout in previous anniversaries,” said Ahmad, who is 60. “But this year, [Trump] has pulled everybody out of their homes. I myself woke up at 6 a.m. to join the rally.”

As in years past, Iranian state television portrayed crowd size as a resounding show of public support for the revolution and its anti-American and anti-Israeli ideals, including resistance to what they say is the imperialism of the US and its regional allies.

TV coverage was at times split into as many as 35 separate live feeds, showing flag- and banner-waving marches in 35 Iranian cities at once.

“I’m here to respond to the leader’s call,” said Ramin, a teenager wearing voguish red trousers. “When we are threatened, no matter by whom, we will be there.”

“This is the first time I am here,” said Mahsa, a 28-year-old sporting bright make-up, which has long been frowned upon by authorities as un-Islamic. “I always watched it on TV. But this time I’m here to respond to Trump’s threats.”

Some hard-liners, too, said they were upping their game.

“I’m here with my son to shout, ‘Death to America!’” said Seyed Hassan, a 40-year-old dressed in the style chosen by Iran’s ideological Basij militia. “This year I can clearly see that the anti-American slogans are much louder because of Trump’s threats.” 

Rouhani focuses on progress

Yet, in his speech in Tehran’s Freedom Square, Mr. Rouhani spoke only briefly about “new rulers in the White House,” omitting Trump’s name.

“Some inexperienced figures in the region and America are threatening Iran … they should know that the language of threats has never worked with Iran,” said Rouhani. “They should learn to respect Iran and Iranians. We will strongly confront any warmongering policies.”

Rouhani spent much more time listing his administration’s progress, delivering a state-of-the-nation-cum-campaign-stump speech for the presidential election in May, when the centrist cleric who shepherded the 2015 nuclear deal will run for a second term.

Iran was now “among the top 10 countries in the world,” claimed Rouhani, which had “secured” its nuclear rights” and developed the advanced IR-8 centrifuge, while fending off the “tyrannical pressure of ill-wishers on Iran.”

Key economic indicators have improved with the easing of sanctions, too, he told Iranians tired of years of a shriveled economy with runaway prices. Inflation has dropped markedly and the economy grown, he said. Iran’s dependency on oil had fallen from 44 percent to 32 percent. Thousands of miles of new roads and hundreds of thousands of new low-income housing units have been built, the president said, giving specific numbers.

Rouhani noted deep social problems such as poverty and drug addiction. He also noted increases in small-arms ammunition production, and said his administration was “vigilant enough” to militarily defend against enemies, and was “on the watch.”

A nod to US demonstrations

The most striking posters in the crowd echoed Iranians’ love-hate relationship with the US – and showed that the recent US demonstrations in support of refugees and immigrants had not gone unnoticed.

One, in English, read, “Thanks to American people for supporting Muslims.”

“Down with US regime. Long live US people,” read another, pre-printed in English.

Yet along Revolution Avenue in Tehran, a big American flag printed on canvas was laid across four lanes of road, forcing all marchers to trample on it. Elsewhere, portraits of Trump and US flags were taped to the ground to defile.

On one stage along the marching route, children in a line sang: “We are all revolutionaries. We will smash America under our feet.” One Trump effigy was carried by a young boy, whose mother said it was handmade – a family project. 

“Unlike Trump, we are not against other nations,” asserted Mohsen, who carried one of the English posters as he walked. “Americans are always welcome by hospitable Iranians.”

A correspondent in Tehran contributed to this report.

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