On Feb 11, 1979, after days of running street battles, Iran’s military stood down and allowed the Islamic Revolution to sweep across the country. The caretaker government left behind by the cancer-stricken Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who weeks earlier left the nation, crumbled as the soldiers once backing it, embraced the supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Foreigners, including a vast population of Americans, soon began trying to leave. US President Jimmy Carter said, “we stand ready to work with” Iran’s new leaders, slowly loosening America’s long embrace of the Shah as its main Mideast ally. But Carter’s decision to permit medical treatment for Shah sparked the takeover of the US Embassy and the hostage crisis, stoking the animosity that exists between Tehran and Washington to this day.
Now, 40 years later, hundreds of thousands of people poured out on to the streets across Iran waving flags, chanting ‘Death to America’ and burning US and Israeli flags, marking the date that’s considered victory day in Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended the ‘Death to America’ chants, saying they are aimed at America’s leaders, such as Trump, and not its people.
Every year, the anniversary festivities start on Feb 1 — the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France after 14 years in exile to become the supreme leader as Shiite clerics took power. The celebrations continue for 10 days, climaxing on Feb 11.
Simmering US-Iran Relations
This year’s anniversary comes as Iran grapples with the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s decision last May to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and restore tough US sanctions.
Speaking from a podium in central Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, lashed out at Iran’s enemies — America and Israel — claiming their efforts to “bring down” the country through sanctions will not succeed.
The military displayed Iranian-made missiles that have a range of up to 2,000 km, placing Israel and US military bases within range. Over the past decade, Iran has frequently test-fired missiles, sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
These tests have angered the US, which fears they are part of an effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability, something Iran insists it has never sought. The 2015 nuclear agreement urged Iran to cease such missile tests, but did not forbid them outright.
“We do not and we will not ask permission for producing any type of missiles from anybody,” Rouhani said, though he stressed that Iran would “continue constructive engagement” with the international community. “The presence of people in this celebration means that plots by the enemies … have been defused,” Rouhani said, adding that “they will not achieve their ill-omened aims.”
Western sanctions have been a fact of life for decades in the wake of the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the 444-day hostage crisis that saw Iranians chanting ‘Death to America!’
There was a sense of optimism in 2015, when Iran reached the nuclear deal — a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration — in which it limited its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But that hope has faded under Trump, who withdrew from the agreement over Iran’s growing role in the region and its ballistic missile programme. The US re-imposed its sanctions last November.
Washington Chides Allies
The Trump administration has accused Britain, France and Germany of trying to bust US sanctions, calling on European nations to join the US in withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal.
Vice President Mike Pence at the conference at Warsaw — timed with these Iran celebrations — demanded that Europeans drop a nuclear deal with Iran and join in seeking to cripple the regime, a cause that united Israel with longtime Arab rivals.
In an unusually blunt speech, Pence slammed the three countries and the European Union as a whole for remaining parties to the landmark 2015 agreement.
Britain, France and Germany, along with the rest of the EU, continue to support the nuclear deal as the best way to prevent Iran from developing atomic weapons. Pence, however, praised other nations for complying with US sanctions by reducing Iranian oil imports. “Sadly, some of our leading European partners have not been nearly as cooperative,” Pence said. “In fact, they have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions.”
Germany, France and Britain have even announced that they have established a new system so their companies can continue trading with Iran without incurring US penalties for doing so. They defended the new payment system as necessary to preserve the Iran accord, under which Tehran was granted billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Pence, however, said Iran’s adherence to the deal’s terms is irrelevant. He said the accord was fatally flawed to begin with as it does not prevent Iran from obtaining the technology or material to eventually develop a nuclear weapon over time. “Compliance is not the issue; the deal is the issue,” he said, calling Iran the “single greatest threat” to security in the Middle East.
The UN’s atomic watchdog and Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have said Iran remains in compliance with the agreement despite the US withdrawal.
Iran’s ‘revolution babies’ are a major force in the country today. More than half of Iran’s 80 million people are under 35, and all of them deal with the legacy of the uprising. For many, the objectives of the revolution are still elusive.
Besides installing the Shiite theocracy that governs today, the Islamic Revolution touted independence from both the West and the East. It also came with a host of plans pushed by the leftists who joined forces with Iran’s
clergy, including economic development, education and social justice. Its leaders promised the people a share of Iran’s lucrative oil sales.
Today, nearly every Iranian can read, compared with only 47% in 1976. College enrolment is high, as evidenced by the crowds of young people on the streets near Tehran University. But at least one in four can’t find work, according to the International Monetary Fund, amid Iran’s 11% unemployment.
However, Mohammad Ahadi, a 25-year-old cook, is proud of the progress Iran has made. “Today, when we look at everything after 40 years, our missile and nuclear technology and our achievements in the Middle East and around the world are talked about everywhere.” Even with the economic sanctions, he sees a defiance that brings independence, and that “is well worth it.” “Yes, America is ahead of us, because it started to work 300 years ago, but our revolution started only 40 years ago,” Ahadi added.
Parivash Fakheri, who was one of the revolutionaries, said she would defend the revolution all over again. “I know there are many economic problems today, but that is something different from our revolution,” she said. “It has been moving forward over the past 40 years and making Iran stronger.”