Iran on Tuesday marked the 35th anniversary of its Islamic revolution, a day when the country’s religious conservatives and military hard-liners take center stage, and calls of “Death to America” echo across the country.
In Tehran’s Azadi Square, one man waving an orange “Down with the USA” flag condemned the U.S. and Israel, and then, perhaps not sure of the nationality of the reporter standing nearby, threw in England and France for good measure.
But Iranians say this year’s rally had a different feel, especially when compared to those under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected last summer, paid tribute to the revolution that brought Iran “victory over dictatorship,” toppling the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
But Rouhani’s main focus was on the daily lives of Iranians, promising increased trade, a stabilized currency, better medical care and more. In order to achieve much of that, the Iranian president is counting on a lifting of sanctions, which will require successful nuclear talks.
With negotiations with six world powers beginning in a week, Rouhani walked a fine rhetorical line, appeasing hard-liners not by threatening an attack, but by ridiculing American officials who say the military option against Iran is still on the table.
“No one should think that Iran can be moved by threats,” Rouhani said. “I want to say to anyone who sees military options on their table, they need to change their glasses.”
Rouhani said the pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program is Iran’s right and will never be given up. But he also told the largely conservative crowd that negotiating with others, including the reflexively hated U.S., is the path to a better Iran.
“Iran is committed to respectful, constructive negotiations,” Rouhani said. “I hope the other side is too when the talks get under way in the coming days.”
For the older generation, this is a time to remember the days when the shah flew out of the country and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini flew in, and the Persian monarchy gave way to an Islamic revolutionary state.
Hossam Rostami, age 67, is old enough to remember life under the shah and the Savak, his brutal secret police force.
“There were lots of homeless and poor people, and if you expressed your thoughts you’d be in jail,” Rostami recalls. “If you talked to an American dog, the Savak would kill you.”
But despite losing a cousin in the uprising against the shah, Rostami doesn’t miss a beat when asked about Rouhani’s new policy of outreach and compromise.
Absolutely, he says, negotiating with the country that backed the shah is the right thing for Iran to do.
“We want to be friends with everybody,” he said.
In some ways, the upcoming nuclear talks present a microcosm of the conflicted feelings swirling around Iran these days. An announcer in Azadi Square commemorated some of Iran’s most recent martyrs: nuclear scientists gunned down by unknown assassins.
And yet, even on this generally bombastic holiday, support for nuclear diplomacy shared the stage with revolutionary fervor.