Topic: Iran in the Spotlight
Young patriots celebrating the 34th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran© RIA Novosti. Grigoriy Sysoev
A rally attendee kissing a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei© RIA Novosti. Grigoriy Sysoev
Rally-goers enjoying the warm February sun, with Azadi Tower in the background© RIA Novosti. Grigoriy Sysoev
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TEHRAN, February 14 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – Balloons shaped like Spider-Man and Batman felt out of place at Iran’s main rally marking the 34th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, bobbing among “Down with U.S.A” placards and stands selling sugar-boiled beets and saffron-flavored ice cream.
Given the rampant America-bashing in the official speeches, piped through dozens of loudspeakers, these inflatable superheroes seemed nothing short of subversive Western propaganda. But not even the police objected to a little Batman.
“America leaders bad, but people okay. And people of Israel okay,” rally participant Bahr told RIA Novosti with the help of his friend, who did not give his name but said he was an English teacher.
The middle-aged duo, accompanied by a preschooler, also took the time to inform RIA Novosti that Supreme Leader Ali “Khamenei is good man” and invited the reporters to join them for lunch, before being swept away by the surging crowd down one of the avenues leading to Azadi Square.
The surrounding streets teemed with two-way motion to and from the square, where the air glittered with confetti from the Azadi Tower and families lounged on sun-soaked patches of grass.
The annual 10-day festivities, culminating in the Tehran rally last Sunday, mark the 1979 overthrow of the US-backed shah that ushered in today’s theocratic regime.
A woman walking past the outer wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, which was seized by Islamists in 1980
The celebrations are meant to show Iran's strength and defiance in the face of the West, especially given the international sanctions that have crippled the local economy in recent years.
The reality, of course, is more complicated than the state propaganda would have us believe – starting with the fact that the 1979 revolution took more than 10 days and was not Islamic in nature at first, as it was driven by secular protests rooted in Iran's economic problems.
Despite official Tehran’s much-peddled hostility toward the West, the dozen or so Iranians who spoke to RIA Novosti in the square, while ardently patriotic, gave vent to no ill will.
And it remained unclear what ordinary people think of reports detailing Iran's technological breakthroughs – including its nuclear research, the official reason for the US-led sanctions – which get top billing in the annual revolution-related celebrations.
Iran’s reports of its great achievements are often marred by inconsistencies that would seem to dull the propaganda impact, just as Batman and Superman raise some questions about the exact power and reach of the state’s anti-Western rhetoric.
A model of the Iranian rocket used to send a monkey into space on display at the rally
This year's highlights included the presentation of the Qaher-313 (“Conqueror”) stealth fighter jet and a successful suborbital flight of a nameless monkey launched into space by the Iranian Space Agency.
The jet was labeled a “hoax” by several Western and Israeli aeronautics experts based on details of its design, which, they said, would render it unable to fly. Perhaps indicatively, the aircraft has never made any public flights.
Skepticism also clouded the monkey's return from space, as the official photographs released before and after the launch showed different animals.
The mistake has been blamed on Iranian media, which, according to the Guardian newspaper, picked up an archive photo of a different space monkey, now deceased, to promote the flight, while the widely circulated post-flight picture showed the genuine 2013 space primate, who returned to Earth in good health.
“Why don't you come to Iran and interview the monkey, if you doubt its existence?” Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, quipped in frustration during a press conference in Moscow last week.
Sunday’s rally in Tehran raised other questions as well, most notably about attendance, as no official figure was given. RIA Novosti’s rough estimate – based on comparison to recent rallies at a Moscow square comparable in size to Azadi – suggests turnout was an impressive 150,000 to 250,000.
“I have been coming here every year since the revolution,” Ibrahim, a state official, said at the rally. Like every other Iranian who agreed to speak on the record, he asked for his last name not to be published.
“We rally not to show our hate, but [to show] that we're surviving, as we always have over the past 34 years, despite Western pressure,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waving to the crowd as he flies away
Many Iranians are in fact skeptical of the government, a phenomenon made evident by the series of protests, known collectively as the Green Movement, spurred by the contested presidential elections of 2009 and ruthlessly suppressed by the authorities thereafter.
The country faces a new presidential vote in June. And the arrests, in recent weeks, of dozens of “reformist” journalists suggest the ruling establishment could be acting to preempt further unrest, fueled largely by economic troubles.
The country’s economy has been in shambles due to a mix of Western sanctions – which get the bulk of the blame in officially sanctioned assessments – and, according to critics outside the country, economic policies pursued by outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even according to official Central Bank data, inflation over the year ending on January 19 reached 28.7 percent, The Tehran Times reported last week.
But on Azadi Square on Sunday, the mood was jovial. Of course, who knows the cause? Was it Ahmadinejad’s rousing speech, or the warm and sunny February day that lent the proceedings a picnic-like mood?
“Nobody's shouting but me,” a small child complained when most of the adults around him failed to join in with the “Allah Akbar!” chant raised by some members of the ultra-loyal Basij militia. He smiled at the RIA Novosti team, and his father bought him an ice cream.
RIA Novosti reporter Mikhail Gusev contributed to this article from Tehran.
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