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Iranians Look Back On 35 Years Since The Revolution


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Iran is marking the anniversary of its Islamic revolution. It's the 35th anniversary of the protests that ended in 1979 with the overthrow of a U.S. ally, the Shah of Iran. The government that has ruled ever since uses Death to America as one of its basic slogans but the possibility of better relations emerged after the election of a new Iranian president last year.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Iran. Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: You know, I seem to recall five years ago or so when I was there for the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, there were days and days and days of huge events. Is that still the case this year?

KENYON: It's not. That's what I've been told. Tomorrow marking the anniversary, it's supposed to be a very early morning event and there will be speeches - we're not sure exactly by who - and we will probably be wrapped up by midday local time. So it's a much less protracted affair and that may reflect the tenor of the new administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was in charge when you were here, was very fond of this holiday and would speak at length and it did tend to go on for quite a while.

INSKEEP: So a little bit of a difference in the official events. What about people on the street? Are they very talkative right now?

KENYON: Well, as you probably remember from your time here, Iranians really don't mind talking to foreigners, although they do sometimes withhold their identity because the security forces and intelligence people are still very active, but they like to talk and there's a lively sense of humor. I was in a poor neighborhood yesterday at a supermarket where they were handing out food baskets to the poor.

Suddenly this old man turned on me and shouted: We chant Death to America all the time - what are you doing here asking questions? Then he paused for effect, cracked a gap-toothed smile, and said, well, you must be OK then. Then he answered all my questions.


INSKEEP: So he did the chant, or he talks about the chant, but he's perfectly happy to talk with a visitor. That gets to another question: What is it that Iranians actually think of the United States when they get past the slogan?

KENYON: They tend to have the kind of response that I have been hearing ever since I first started working in the Middle East in 2001: We're really not very fond of your government but we think the people are OK. And there's variations on that theme but that's essentially the tenor of if.

INSKEEP: Although we should remember this 35th anniversary marks the overthrow of a ruler who was supported by the United States and who was regarded by many as very repressive.

KENYON: That's right. Again, they see that as an official government policy, not something necessarily being generated by the American people. So they do make that distinction. And this holiday is important across the country partly because of people who want to support the Islamic revolution and also because it was followed by a long and bloody war with Iraq. And many people simply turn out on February 11 to remember the young people who gave their lives in that cause.

INSKEEP: How are Iranians viewing their new president, Hassan Rouhani, and the efforts that he's made to open up the country at least slightly and also improve relations with the world?

KENYON: Well, it's interesting. There haven't been any real big economic improvements yet. The former cash subsidies have been turned into food baskets for the poor, but really just tinkering around the edges. Still, unlike in the U.S., where a political honeymoon might last a matter of weeks, several months after Rouhani's election, both people on the street and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are saying, hey, give the government a chance.

And Khamenei is keeping the hardliners quiet and really the reformers are just sitting and waiting. They have nowhere else to go. And they recognize how hard a task he's got to rebuild this battered economy.

INSKEEP: You mentioned reformers. We're talking here about people who say they support the Islamic revolution but they do want more freedoms, they want more openness. Have they been able to claim any concrete achievements there?

KENYON: No. I would say really not much. I've spoken with a whole range of people beyond the hardliners - reformers, liberals, even leftists - and they all agree, Rouhani's mandate is quite narrow. Fix the economy, get the sanctions lifted, don't give away too much at the nuclear table, and plug Iran back into the global economy. Other than that, there's been a few prisoners released but they've been politically neutralized. The political system remains tightly controlled.

Really, their only hope is that if the nuclear talks go well, Rouhani may somehow consolidate power and have a chance, if he's interested, in making some other changes later on.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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