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Iranians turned out for mass rallies today to mark the 35th anniversary of the country's Islamic Revolution. A boisterous crowd gathered in Tehran to hear President Hassan Rouhani deliver a far more moderate speech than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Tehran, Rouhani stressed the importance of negotiations with the U.S. and other nations that Iran considers enemies.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: This is the day Iran's religious conservatives and military hardliners take center stage, and calls of death to America echo across the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
KENYON: In Tehran's Azadi Square, one man waving an orange down with the USA flag condemned the U.S. and Israel, and then, perhaps not sure of the nationality of the reporter standing nearby, threw in England and France for good measure. But Iranians say this year's rally had a different feel, it effectively marked President Rouhani's first major address to the nation and the outside world.
He did pay tribute to the revolution that brought Iran victory over dictatorship, toppling the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979. But his main focus was on the daily lives of Iranians, promising increased trade, a stabilized currency, better medical care and more. In order to achieve much of that, the Rouhani is counting on a lifting of sanctions, which will require successful nuclear talks.
With negotiations with six world powers beginning in a week, Rouhani walked a fine rhetorical line, appeasing hard-liners, not by threatening an attack, but by ridiculing American officials who say the military option against Iran is still on the table.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) No one should think that Iran can be moved by threats. I want to say to anyone who sees military options on their table, they need to change their glasses.
KENYON: Rouhani said the pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program is Iran's right and will never be given up. But he also told the largely conservative crowd that negotiating with others, including the reflexively hated U.S., is the path to a better Iran.
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Iran is committed to respectful, constructive negotiations. I hope the other side is, too, when the talks get under way in the coming days.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KENYON: For the older generation, this is a time to remember the heady days when the long-hated shah flew out of the country and Imam Ruhollah Khomeini flew in, and the Persian monarchy gave way to an Islamic revolutionary state. Sixty-seven year old Hossam Rostami is old enough to remember life under the shah and the Savak, his brutal secret police force.
HOSSAM ROSTAMI: (Through interpreter) There were lots of homeless and poor people, and if you expressed your thoughts you'd be in jail. If you talked to an American dog, the Savak would kill you.
KENYON: But despite losing a cousin in the uprising against the shah, Rostami doesn't miss a beat when asked about Rouhani's new policy of outreach and compromise. Absolutely, he says, negotiating with the country that backed the shah is the right thing for Iran to do. We want to be friends with everybody, he says.
ROSTAMI: (Speaking foreign language)
KENYON: In some ways, the upcoming nuclear talks present a microcosm of the conflicted feelings swirling around Iran these days. This announcer in Azadi Square is commemorating some of Iran's most recent martyrs: nuclear scientists gunned down by unknown assassins.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)
KENYON: And yet, even on this generally bombastic holiday, support for nuclear diplomacy is sharing the stage with revolutionary fervor. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran.
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