On 45th anniversary of Islamic Revolution, modern-day Iran grapples with complex history with US: Reporter's notebook

This year was the 45th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

February 15, 2024, 6:09 AM

TEHRAN, Iran -- As we entered an old but well-kept two-story brick building in downtown Tehran, we were greeted with a friendly "hello, welcome" with a warm smile and a thick Persian accent.

We had scheduled a tour, the details of which I'll spare you, mostly because we promised to be discreet about our tour guide's identity. He was a tall, lean, somewhat shy yet confident young man. 

"Chetori," I said. This Persian greeting is one of the few words I know in Farsi, one that I leaned on heavily.

Then, he said it, almost sheepishly: "I don't hate you."

Words that came out of nowhere and, at the same time, spoke to everything everywhere.

As he said it, he had leaned in closest to my colleague, Kirit, but the message was clearly meant for our entire group: the three Americans and one Irishman who just walked into his world.

I still can’t shake it that this young man felt it necessary to disarm us with this precondition, as if to say, "Don't worry, I'm not a threat.”

My guess is we were not the first Americans to whom he'd offered this assurance, just another greeting and salutation in the cordial exchange of introductory pleasantries.

He'd done it before. But he took no joy in it -- an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire between two worlds. A fight he wanted no part of.

One of the first things I noticed about Tehran was its cleanliness. Granted, there is the faint yet persistent smell of vehicle exhaust in the air, but the streets are spotless.

I was immediately struck by the stunning Alborz Mountains that separate Tehran from the Caspian Sea, clinging to the edge of the city, so close you can seemingly reach out and touch them.

PHOTO: The Alborz Mountains overlooking west Tehran.
The Alborz Mountains overlooking west Tehran.
Mola Lenghi/ABC News

Competing with the mountains for my attention, as our driver zipped us around town, were the massive, omnipresent portraits on display throughout the city of Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran; Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, the former supreme leader, and the late Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who in death has become somewhat of a national icon.

Tehran's high-rises are tattooed with beautifully painted murals. Admittedly, I didn’t recognize most of the figures, but I did notice they fit exclusively into two categories: bearded men dressed in traditional Shia cleric turbans and robes or rugged statesman-like figures dressed in military fatigues. It was a ubiquitous fusion of religion and nationalism, God and country.

The four of us came to Tehran primarily to cover the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that installed the ayatollah as Iran's supreme leader, overthrowing the then-monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This 45th-anniversary ceremony drew hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Iranian regime to Tehran.

A massive turnout in its own right but still one some Iranians would tell me was lower than it used to be "10 to 15 years ago when millions" would turn out for the annual ceremony.

Perhaps a reflection of what some suggest is dwindling support for the government.

Scratch the surface and you'll spot at least some degree of dissatisfaction in Tehran. I met many who were concerned less about the state of the 45-year-old revolution and more about the state of the economy -- crippling inflation, double-digit unemployment, a disappearing middle class and an increasing exodus of youth searching for better opportunities abroad.

Around town, the day before the anniversary ceremony, Iranians milled about. We stopped by a bustling neighborhood bazaar, a narrow corridor fixed with dozens of vendors hocking everything from fresh produce, meat, nuts, dates and spices, to clothing, antiques, handmade crafts and Persian rugs.

Salman, a fashionably dressed middle-aged man with a short, graying beard, invited us into his corner store. "The prices go up every day," he said.

He pointed to the chestnuts, then the walnuts, then the saffron-flavored pistachios, as he rattled off the escalating per-gram cost of each, comparing it to the day before, then the day before that and the day before that.

Still, he'd insist we sample anything we want. "Made in Iran," he told me as I tossed a walnut in my mouth. Delicious. Then he poured us some tea. Persian hospitality in a nutshell.

PHOTO: Tehran Market in Tehran, Iran.
Tehran Market in Tehran, Iran.
ABC News

I met Mehdi, a bazaar dessert vendor in his 30s. "We are making just enough not to die," he told me, a polite but muted smile barely hiding his desperation.

Mehdi couldn't quite pinpoint the cause of the nation's economic strain but was convinced U.S. sanctions are making matters worse.

The thing about blame in Iran is that it can be elusive. Sometimes, the regime gets a little. Sometimes, a lot. Other times the ire of Iranians' discontent is aimed west: the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe. Sometimes it's the Israelis, the Arabs, the Saudis. Other times the culprit is more abstract, like "outside forces" or "we are losing our values" or "everything is out of place."

But even those who hold critical views of the regime are careful about how they express those opinions and to whom.

One gentleman, who appeared to be in his 60s, with salt-and-pepper stubble and a folded newspaper tucked under his armpit, described the situation like this: "If you keep pouring water into a cup, after time, the water spills over the cup."

A metaphor, I presumed. For what, I'm still unsure.

PHOTO: Tehran Market in Tehran, Iran.
Tehran Market in Tehran, Iran.
ABC News

I heard more than one anecdote about college graduates resorting to food delivery jobs that pay better than the science and engineering jobs in their fields of study.

One man grimaced as he told me how his son, seeing few opportunities here in Iran, uprooted his young family to Switzerland. The man, clearly pained by the separation, conceded with a shrug, saying: "Right now, no future for him here."

We met Maedeh at the bazaar. Thinking about her future, the 26-year-old budding sports trainer told me how salaries are not even close to keeping up with the cost of living. Speaking to Maedeh, I considered what Iran's future might look like. "It's her," I thought. She wore jeans, had a sharp smile and thick wavy hair that was unrestrained by a hijab.

Maedeh didn't strike me as someone who sits back and allows things to happen to her. Instead, she makes things happen for herself. She is one of an increasing number of empowered young Iranian women openly skirting hijab rules on the street, a stark departure from years past. "We are not afraid," Maedeh told me, boldly.

She thanked me for my time with a firm handshake. That may not seem like much in some countries but in a place like Iran -- where women have often been told what to do, who to be, what not to do, who not to be -- for a young, single woman to look a man she just met in the eye and firmly shake his hand, rightfully putting herself on equal footing with him, in the middle of a public market in the Islamic world -- make no mistake, that is a brave act. Perhaps I shouldn't have been but I was impressed.

The Islamic Revolution anniversary ceremony was part celebration, part show of force.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military hardware was on full display in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square, adjacent to the iconic Azadi Tower, an impressive 150-foot-tall landmark uniquely cut out of marble.

PHOTO: The 45th-anniversary ceremony of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the shadow of the Azadi Tower.
The 45th-anniversary ceremony of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the shadow of the Azadi Tower.
Mola Lenghi/ABC News

Iran's latest missile and drone technology towered over thousands of delighted families casually strolling around the event, children -- face-painted and giggling -- running around waving mini Iranian flags, the occasional traditionally dressed cleric drawing a small crowd and pressing the flesh, the more-than-occasional political zealot preaching, loudly, about the greatness of the 1979 revolution.

The staggering show of force was not lost on many of those in attendance. Against the backdrop of escalating tension in the region, I asked one man about the possibility of war between Iran and the United States. He gestured to the missiles in the distance over his shoulder and told me Iran is "not afraid to use them."

PHOTO: Families gather under IRGC missiles and pictures of the ayatollahs displayed at the 45th-anniversary ceremony of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Families gather under IRGC missiles and pictures of the ayatollahs displayed at the 45th-anniversary ceremony of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mola Lenghi/ABC News

It was a sentiment echoed a few moments later when we spotted Amir Ali Hajizadeh, chief commander of IRGC Air Force, moving confidently through densely packed masses.

His bodyguards allowed my photographer, Colm, and me into the crowded scrum that surrounded Hajizadeh. Through a translator, he offered me a measured warning, saying: "The Americans know that they should not mess with Iran. We are not warmongers. We do not seek war either. Yet, we are not concerned in any way and we are ready."

PHOTO: ABC News' Mola Lenghi speaks with the IRGC Air Force commander.
ABC News' Mola Lenghi speaks with the IRGC Air Force commander.
Cindy Smith/ABC News
PHOTO: ABC News' Mola Lenghi speaks with the IRGC Air Force commander.
ABC News' Mola Lenghi speaks with the IRGC Air Force commander.
Kirit Radia/ABC News

Iranians are incredibly proud of their deep history and rich culture. Many are also serious, without being fanatical, about their faith. But when it comes to being Iranian, they are devout.

The anniversary ceremony was not the place to find anyone with lukewarm loyalty to the regime, of which there are plenty throughout Iran. But this event attracted Iranians who remain fervent in their support for the ayatollah and Iranian military might.

"If a war happened, we are never afraid, and we support our government," Niloofar told me. The 35-year-old author and filmmaker stressed how important the Palestinian cause is to her, saying: "It's part of Islam and we absolutely support them. We support it forever, for making it free."

While the mood of the ceremony was celebratory, it was punctuated with the occasional burning of American and Israeli flags, and chants of "death to Israel" and "death to America."

But even with this, Iranians managed to create a paradox.

Upon learning that we were Americans, one man who we had seen just seconds earlier shouting "death to America" hustled over to us with a friendly and heartfelt "welcome to Iran," no irony intended. Later, another man holding a sign with the American flag crossed out, chased down my colleague Cindy and me to offer each of us a piece of candy and a gracious smile.

So many at the ceremony who fumed against the U.S. also stressed to me that their anger is directed at the U.S. government, making the distinction between American policies and the American people.

"Death to America" is only part of the picture of Iran.

The rest of the picture includes kids walking around in their Nike sneakers. Cheeseburgers on sesame seed buns pictured on billboard ads in Tehran that could be mistaken for billboard ads in Topeka, Kansas. The Japanese hibachi restaurant attached to our hotel lobby playing a seemingly endless loop of Christmas carols. On more than one occasion I had to remind myself, "You’re in Iran."

Just when you think you're wrapping your head around what you're seeing and why, something comes along and reminds you Iran is never just one thing.

Nothing is absolute. No end is inevitable. People are not a monolith; they are complicated contradictions. And Persians are no different.

"Chetori," translating to "how are you" or "how's it going," is perhaps the most common Persian greeting. It can be casual yet sincere and used any time of day.

It was one of the first Farsi words I picked from my Persian friends growing up in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., home to a vibrant Iranian American community.

Through them, I knew intimately the affection so many Iranians have for the United States. I knew this as I prepared to visit Iran for the first time. Still, you never know what to expect when visiting a new country. Especially one with such a complex and turbulent history with America.

One man I regularly chatted with in Tehran quipped to me, "Some of the same people screaming 'death to America' here would be on the next flight to L.A. if they could."

I was certain at some point I would hear that chant, "death to America," during my five-day visit to Iran. And I did.

But the words that ring loudest are those of our tour guide: "I don't hate you."

Words I still hear.

In another life, we all could've been friends. 

Perhaps we still can.

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