Iran marked the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Saturday with a public display of confidence that stood in sharp contrast to widespread unease about the costs of the country’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.
Demonstrators hoisting a national flag more than a mile long chanted slogans condemning the United States and Israel. Speakers vowed that threats and sanctions would not damp the nation’s will.
And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would soon unveil unspecified “nuclear achievements.”
But behind the defiance was a broad sense of uncertainty among many Iranians, even the government’s supporters. The country’s economic problems, aggravated by new international sanctions, have hit middle- and working-class Iranians hard. Inflation is rampant in the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, and the currency is plummeting in value.
Reports speculating about a possible Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities have been answered with counter-threats and have added to the collective angst.
Iran insists its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. But the U.S. and many of its allies suspect it of trying to master the components of bomb-making, and are imposing increasingly tough economic sanctions.
Israeli officials, who regard Iran as an existential threat, have warned recently that efforts to stop the country’s nuclear program may be reaching a point of no return.
Also unsettling to many Iranians on the anniversary was an Internet blackout, which the Mehr News agency said had left about 30 million people without access to their email since Thursday. There was rampant speculation that authorities had shut it down, but it was not clear why they would do that.
“People are worried about their future, their economic future,” said Hosian, 55, a Tehran grocery shop owner. “The government does not seem to be able to contain the prices. … We need a heavy-handed crackdown to control the prices. It is more important than anything else.”
Talk of war worries him, said the grocer, who like others criticizing the government declined to give his surname.
“Warmongering rhetoric on both sides will ultimately lead to catastrophe,” he said. “If you make threats, one day you have to fulfill your threats or shut up.”
Reza, 37, who runs a Tehran laundry, says rumors of war also trouble him, “But what can I do?”
Reza said business had plummeted. With spring approaching, almost half of his regular customers were declining to send their curtains, drapes and blankets for washing and dry cleaning.
A 35-year-old customs worker who identified himself as Hasan dismissed talk of war as a government tactic to spur support for hard-liners in next month’s parliamentary elections. “I am sure there is no danger of war against us,” he says. “Later, after the election, they will not mention the threat.”
Iranians who support children studying abroad are especially feeling the pinch, since the exchange rate means many are paying double what they did a few months ago. “I may have to ask my daughter to come back and forget her PhD, said a Tehran man whose daughter is studying in Boston.
One highly visible measure that the government has taken is a crackdown on money changers who proliferate on certain streets, especially near the British Embassy and other foreign missions. Iranians had been stocking up on dollars and euros as a hedge. But now many money changers have had to stop selling or go underground, fearing arrest.
A 57-year-old money changer who called himself Vahed said that as a precaution he now carries no hard currency on him. Vahed, who was walking back and forth whispering “dollars” to potential clients near the British Embassy, said he makes verbal deals with customers and accompanies them to a legal exchange shop for the actual transaction.
Such troubles do not negate the support many Iranians express for the government’s stated goal of developing a peaceful nuclear power program.
“Achieving nuclear energy is worth all the ordeals we have to go through,” said Rasul Ahmadi, 40, an employee of a car manufacturing factory who was among those out Saturday celebrating the revolution’s anniversary. “For a better life in the future, we have to suffer today.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut