How do you prepare as an American to attend a rally that is by definition anti-American?
“Let’s face it,” I said to Matthew Bell, producer and reporter with The World, “a government organized pro-revolution anti-American rally is safer than a spontaneous demonstration where anything can happen.”
Bell had been in Tahrir Square and knew how things at spontaneous gatherings can get sketchy, and how quickly they can spin out of control. I had been in Dakar in 2012 and was tear-gassed as young demonstrators demanded their president step down.
This was different: The 37th anniversary of the birth of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that launched an experiment in Iran that has now spun through two generations of citizens. Some were adults at the time, others were children. And many at today’s rally who fall right in that 18- to 35-year-old bulge were not even born. Still, in 2016, this independence day celebration of sorts does not have many different interpretations.
“It’s about our independence.”
“It’s to remember Khomeini, our father.”
“It’s to say we will never submit to the west.”
“It’s to say no to America, no to Israel. No to imperialism."
Those are the main points. And at the rally commemorating the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi’s troops on February 11, 1979, bringing Ayatollah Khomeini to power, no one I spoke with veered off those points.
Some did offer colorful defiance. Zahra, a 15 year-old who spoke excellent English, told me “I want to prove to all superpower nations that we will resist to the last breath of our lives, and we won’t leave our leader alone.”
But elsewhere among the throngs of hundreds of thousands of people, for a foreigner, it was a study of contrasts and irony.
Despite the nuclear deal and a slow-motion diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, a man strolled down the Azadi Avenue carrying an effigy of Barack Obama, his head in a makeshift cage. Around him people carried signs that read “Down with USA, Down with Israel.” Others chanted the same, but with “death to” instead of “down with.” But across the avenue, on a stage decorated with balloon bunting, a man in a Mickey Mouse costume wound up the passing crowds.
Some passersby hearing us speaking English wanted to know in their broken English where we were from. “Boston, US,” Matthew told one man. “Oh, I have a son studying in Virginia.” And then drowning us out, more choruses in Farsi over the loudspeakers, “Down with America, down with Israel!”
Throughout the day, however, people greeting us with smiles and the same, “Welcome to Iran!"
Overall, this rally makes up the support base for political hardliners in Iran and the supreme leader. One indication of the country’s political diversity was apparent though in a big purple banner.
It pledged support of the Moderation and Development Faction, the coalition of moderates who look to President Hassan Rouhani’s leadership. The banner felt oddly out-of-place among the more strident messages. But Rouhani was indeed the headline speaker at today’s event, asserting his bona fides and continued support of the revolution:
“We can achieve all the goals with the help of the people and the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,” Rouhani said.
He also said that being a revolutionary in 2016 “means being in favour of participation, tolerance ... and having goods capable of competition in world markets.”
I thought of the recent re-introduction of Iranian saffron to the United States. And then I noticed that some of the placards supporting the late Ayatollah Khomenei and Ayatollah Khamenei were branded with the logo of a local cell phone company.