TEHRAN -- Throngs of people took to the streets of the Iranian capital Tuesday to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which ousted a U.S.-backed leader and brought a defiantly anti-Washington government to power.
Iranians both young and old congregated in highly choreographed rallies organized by the government. Many waved Iranian flags and colorful balloons, while some hoisted portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the late founder of the revolution, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s current supreme leader.
On display along the streets were posters depicting President Obama dressed in an orange Guantanamo-style prison jumpsuit or with a red clown nose.
This year’s theme and slogans were clearly linked to the latest developments in world politics involving the Islamic Republic, which rose from the overthrow in 1979 of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
In Tehran’s Enghelab Square, huge crowds chanted “we are eager for all options” in reference to Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s statement that the U.S. still keeps open its military options despite ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
The 35th anniversary comes at a time of change in Iran, just a little over six months after reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani assumed office. The new leader’s low-key style is in stark contrast to that of his often-bombastic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In November, Iran agreed to an interim deal with the United States and five other world powers to constrain its controversial nuclear program in exchange for a reduction in international sanctions that have battered the Iranian economy. Tehran says it is pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while many in the international community suspect it is seeking the ability to make nuclear weapons.
In a speech Tuesday in Tehran’s Azadi Square, Rouhani focused on economic issues, including diminished inflation and progress on lifting sanctions lifting since he took office.
“We have struck the first blow to the illegal sanctions, in the fields of insurance, shipping, the banking system, foodstuffs and medicine and exports of petrochemical materials,” said Rouhani.
On the side streets away from the rally, many residents seemed to support the new president.
“The Iranian revolution should have a reconciliation with the world, especially with the big powers such as the U.S., France, and the U.K.,” said Hadi Hamidi, a 27-year-old employee at an electricity power plant outside Tehran.
For Hamidi and others, the economy is the most pressing issue. Many view the further lifting of sanctions, which will be a topic of upcoming talks for a long-term nuclear deal, as crucial to moving Iran out of its economic doldrums.
“In the electricity plant, we have a hard time with a shortage of spare parts,” Hamidi said, linking the problem to import bans of equipment into Iran. “We need more job opportunities and that is done only by integrating more with the world.”
On the domestic front, Rouhani has been criticized for not pushing harder for social and cultural change. In his presidential campaign, he called for greater individual rights and spoke of the need for more cultural openness. But the new president is caught between liberals pushing for reforms and hard-liners, his chief rivals, who are hostile to such changes.
“The youth clearly want more democracy and new ideas,” said Farshad Qourbanpour, a 35-year-old journalist. “Rouhani is gradually pushing back the hard-liners. The reason it is very slow is that the hard-liners are very influential among military and security strata of the society, though they are not many in terms of the population.”
That delicate dance was evident Tuesday as Rouhani expressed guarded optimism about the possibility of a permanent deal with world powers but, in a bow to hard-liners, warned that Iran doesn’t respond to threats.
“It is a historic test for Europe and the U.S.,” Rouhani said about the nuclear talks. “If the negotiations are done within the national rights of the Iranian state, a framework of international laws, and mutual respect and equal footing, then [the world powers] will receive a positive response from Iranian nation.”
In the audience, Mohammad Mobaraki, a white-turbaned young mullah, and two friends, both members of the hard-line Basij militiamen, raised their fists in the air and repeatedly chanted, “Death to America!”
Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.