TEHRAN (Dispatches) – Millions of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities on Tuesday morning to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, against a backdrop of escalating tensions with the United States.
National television showed video footage of rallies in at least half a dozen cities outside the capital, including Mashhad, Ahvaz, Tabriz, Rasht, Qom and Kerman, with people holding signs that read, "Death to America” and "Death to Israel”.
Iran almost got into a full-blown conflict with the United States last month after a U.S. drone strike martyred top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting Iran to retaliate with a missile barrage against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.
Tensions spiked between Iran and the United States after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in a bid to pressure Tehran to negotiate over its ballistic missile program.
Missiles were put on display as part of the anniversary celebrations, according to the Tasnim news agency. National TV showed archival footage of missile launches and underground missile storage facilities as part of its anniversary coverage.
The missile program is not intended for attacks on neighboring countries, President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif in a tweet advised Trump to change his policies on Iran after the turnout for the anniversary showed that Iranians are united.
"Iranians turned out in huge numbers to rally on the 41st anniversary of their revolution — and to honor their fallen heroes,” he said.
National television referred to this year’s anniversary as "Soleimani Dawn.” His image could be seen on signs carried by demonstrators across the country.
Rouhani called Gen. Soleimani both a great military commander and a "senior diplomat.” Gen. Soleimani headed the Quds Force, which works across the Mideast with allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere.
Those taking part in the demonstration in Tehran, in which protesters burned American and Israeli flags, offered harsh criticism of the U.S.
"America can’t do a damn thing through the sanctions,” said Ozra Shahbakhti, 50. "Even if we die from poverty and hunger we will not compromise with America, no way. I’m telling this to officials, foreigners and America.”
Ali Akbar Nikkei, 36, put the blame directly on Trump.
"You stretch your hand for friendship towards us and then you assassinate our great general and consider this a victory?” Nikkei said. "You are too desperate to bring Iran to its knees.”
President Rouhani said the United States finds it "unbearable” that the Islamic Revolution remains in place 41 years after bringing down U.S. ally the shah.
"It is unbearable for the United States to accept the victory of a great nation and that a superpower has been driven out of this land,” Rouhani told a rally in Tehran.
"It is natural for them to have dreamt, for 41 years, of returning to this land, because they know that we are one of the most powerful countries” in the Middle East, he added.
Rouhani was speaking at a rally in Tehran’s Azadi Square marking the anniversary.
Washington has become a sworn enemy of the Iranians since 1979, when the government of the US..-backed shah was ousted.
Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi had already fled the country weeks earlier after months of protests against his regime.
Ties between the two sides have been severed since November of that year, when Iranian students demanding the shah’s extradition held 52 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held them for 444 days.
"In the past two years, America has put so much pressure on our beloved people, on all of our trade, all of our exports, all of our imports, and all of the country’s needs, to exhaust the patience of our people,” said Rouhani.
But "the Americans did not understand the greatness of the Iranian people,” he said.
"The United States believes it is facing 41 years of civilization. No, the Americans are facing thousands of years of Iranian civilization.”