Iran Celebrates an Earthshaking Anniversary

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Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Iranians attend a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution with posters of the late Ayatullah Khomeini

Three decades after Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini's triumphant return to Iran to claim power on the ruins of the Shah's regime, Iran's Islamic revolution can still draw a crowd. That much was clear Tuesday as several hundred thousand people converged on Tehran's Freedom Square to celebrate its 30th anniversary at the very spot where Khomeini was first welcomed home from his exile in France. (See pictures of Khomeini's triumphant return to Iran in 1979.)

The rally, at once gaudy and solemn, marked the culmination of weeks of celebrations that have seen streets bedecked with posters of Khomeini, TV and radio broadcasts of songs with lyrics such as "When the demon [the Shah] leaves, the angel [Khomeini] enters," and endless interviews with heroes of the struggle against the Shah's regime. (See images of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran)

For many Iranians, the revolution of 1979 was a declaration of independence from years of meddling by the Western powers who had been instrumental in installing and propping up the Shah's regime. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the opportunity to reaffirm a nationalist message, even as he addressed the recurring theme of Iran's relationship with the U.S. and its allies.

"With a loud voice I declare that thank God and thanks to the steadfastness of the Iranian people, the shadow of [enemy] threats has forever been lifted from over the heads of the Iranian people," Ahmadinejad said. Still, the Iranian President appeared to reciprocate recent calls from the Obama Administration for a constructive dialogue with Tehran, telling the crowd that "our nation is ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere" and that "change should be fundamental, not tactical, and our people welcome real changes." (See the faces of Iran.)

Many in the crowd were willing to echo the President's sentiments. A retired air-force member, 68-year-old Ali Amir-Hosseini, vividly remembered the Ayatullah's return. "We staged a strike and were one of the first brigades to stop collaborating with the Shah's regime," he said, adding, "Back then, we had little pride. We really felt like the stooges of the U.S. Today, we are a proud people. At last we determine our own fate and the bigger powers just don't know how to deal with us." Then he asked a bystander listening in where he was from; upon learning the man was American, shook his hand and said, "Thank you."

Elsewhere, a group of schoolgirls in pale pink coats and hijabs performed a combination of martial arts and dance moves to a techno version of a marching song. They were followed on the stage by Tom & Jerry and a moderator who offered a prize for the right response to a quiz question: "Where did the Imam [Khomeini] deliver his first speech?" There were at least a dozen wrong guesses before someone ventured, "At the airport."

Stands set up by schools, mosques, cooperatives, and large public and private companies lined the streets, some staging singers and performers, others distributing revolution paraphernalia, many others handing out tea and sweets. Nongovernmental stands were accepting donations for the people of Gaza, and at one of them, two young men proudly displayed a gold bangle that a woman had spontaneously removed from her wrist and donated.

Paratroopers dropped from helicopters by the dozen, impressing thousands of people holding flags, posters and cups of tea. But there was more to this massive street party than revolutionary zeal: a group of young men sporting sunglasses and too much hair gel confessed they were there only to have fun and suggested that most people in the crowd were there for the same reason.

Just then, a serious-looking young boy passed by, dragging an effigy of George W. Bush covered with Stars of David. One of the hair-gelled boys teased the lad for wasting a perfectly good outfit on an effigy, telling him that he should have saved the clothes for himself.

President Bush may be history in the West, but the Iranians are keeping him alive as a whipping boy for anti-American hostility. He was the favorite effigy of the parade, and President Ahmadinejad called for Bush and his government to be charged and prosecuted for "the millions killed and displaced in the region."

Two young girls waving flags told TIME they'd come to "show that we believe in the path of the revolutionaries and want to follow it." Like them, the overwhelming majority of Iranians today have no memory of the revolution as a lived experience and tend to adopt attitudes shaped by their parents' responses to the events of 30 years ago.

A 46-year-old mother in a black chador watching the parade with her handsome 22-year-old son said she was there to show her appreciation for the revolution "because back then, we didn't have any freedom, and moral vice was widespread." The son chipped in, "I would say, I don't know about freedom, 'cause I wasn't there, but vice was probably just more on the surface back then, whereas now, it is under the city's skin."

Closer to the square, a lone young man stood holding a poster praising the revolution but festooned with a picture of reformist former President Mohammed Khatami, who is once again running for President in the June elections. The Khatami supporter, 23-year-old Ali Reza, said the economy is bad but that as a young university student, he cares more about his freedom of speech. "I shouldn't be afraid to express my views in university," he said, his hand holding the poster shaking profusely. Before long, he was reminded by a friendly Revolutionary Guard officer that the square was not a place for "election propaganda." Another man passing by asked accusingly, "Why are you telling this to the foreigner?" and pointed to a Western journalist listening in on the conversation.

The rally ended abruptly, shortly after Ahmadinejad's speech. Ramadan Shallah, leader of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, mounted the podium and thanked the Islamic Republic for its support of the Palestinians, then left the stage. Ahmadinejad boarded an army helicopter, waving down from its window. Other helicopters flew overhead and showered the crowds with glitter-confetti, and people began streaming away from Freedom Square. The revolution was now officially 30 years old.