Iran Changed 30 Years After Revolution
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, kinder, gentler layoffs - is that possible?
But first, today Iran begins celebrating the anniversary of its Islamic Revolution. Thirty years ago, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile. Within 10 days, he was in power, replacing an American-backed king with the cleric who denounced the United States. Iran's regime marks the anniversary with a celebration it calls the 10-Day Dawn. It started today at Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb near Tehran. NPR's Steve Inskeep was there.
STEVE INSKEEP: The first thing to know about this shrine is that it's huge. The second, that it's unfinished. There are four giant gold minarets around an unfinished dome. We're beneath the ceiling made of bare steel trusses from which crystal chandeliers hang. A portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini is up on the wall with that famous glower. He's staring right at the camera with dark eyebrows. And far in the back of this huge crowd, we can hear some people getting off a few preliminary chants of "Death to America."
SIMON: Steve Inskeep at Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb earlier today. Steve joins us now from Tehran. And Steve, do the crowds still really chant "Death to America" or is it kind of like just for old times' sake now?
INSKEEP: (Laughing) They do definitely chant it, Scott, but they're very polite about it. There were songs by a military band at this event, and at the end of several of them you heard the chant, "Death to America." We heard it on the streets of Tehran at a demonstration earlier this week, but even at that demonstration, one of the people who was chanting turned around, saw us, saw that we were Westerners, we had microphones, and he said, I'm ready for my interview now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Americans have a set of memories about the Iranian Revolution 30 years ago. What do Iranians remember in speeches and songs today?
INSKEEP: They mark the exact moment that Ayatollah Khomeini's plane touched down. He was returning from exile in France. The Shah of Iran had already fled. Khomeini, who was a leader of the opposition, was coming back in effect to take charge of the country, and the details of this event are recounted the way that American schoolchildren learn to recount the battles of Lexington and Concord and the ride of Paul Revere. They see this as the beginning of a republic and a moment when huge crowds supported Ayatollah Khomeini.
It's worth remembering at a time when this government is not seen as very popular that Khomeini was hugely popular then. He was seen as a figure who altered the history of his country and helped to make it independent from the West. Of course, we should also remember that in those days, Khomeini was promising to include lots of kinds of people in his government, and in the end, he pushed many people out.
SIMON: And help us understand what Iran confronts on its anniversary today.
INSKEEP: Well, this is a time when Iran has a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is being criticized at home and abroad. Iran's economy is bad. Inflation is among the highest in the world - as high as 28 percent. The government says it's being pulled down a bit, but it's still quite high. And at the same time, oil prices, which are a key part of the economy for this oil-producing country, are way down. And suddenly, Iran is being forced to discuss cutting back the subsidies that help people pay for things like food and fuel. And as a result of all of this, some people are reevaluating where Iran goes next.
But it's also a moment of great interest, Scott, because of course, there's a new administration in Washington and talk of possibly some new relationship with the United States.
SIMON: And does the Iranian government still have that hold on people we hear in those chants?
INSKEEP: Formally, yes. The government definitely holds all levers of power. They can arrest people who oppose them, and they often do. They jail journalists. They've closed opposition newspapers. But it's difficult, Scott. I was talking this past week with an analyst who said, Iranians are by no standards the people they were 30 years ago. The population is bigger, it's younger, it's better educated, too, and demanding a lot. And that might be symbolized by the coffee shop where I met this person.
There was a sign on the door saying women would not be served unless they were wearing traditional Islamic dress, and there was even a diagram, but inside, women were being served even though they had stretched the rules, stretched the requirement as much as they possibly could.
SIMON: NPR's Steve Inskeep in Tehran. Thanks so much.
INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Scott.
SIMON: Steve will report from Tehran over the next week on Iran 30 years after its revolution. Tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, we'll listen to the voices of Iranian women. They've been the agents of change but are also targets of persecution.
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