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On the 30th Anniversary of the Revolution, Iranian Leaders Mull the Future

February 10, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Political and religious leaders in Iran are dealing with vast changes in the country's society since the revolution 30 years ago, including President Obama's suggestion for dialogue. Lindsey Hilsum, of Independent Television News, reports.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, two reports from Iran, during this week of its 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Both are by Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News in Tehran.

The first, Iran’s first response to President Obama’s suggestion of a dialogue.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Man of the people. President Ahmadinejad amongst the crowds at today’s rally to mark the 30th anniversary of the revolution. He’s trying to show the world that, far from being a dangerous fanatic in charge of a rogue state, he’s a popular leader who has to be reckoned with.

The Basiji, the shock troops of the Islamic republic, landed by parachute. They at least provided some fun and excitement, but there’s tension under the surface.

The moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami, who’s challenging the conservative Mr. Ahmadinejad for the presidency in June was attacked in the crowd by people shouting, “We don’t want American government.” The hardliners were out in force today.

Last night, President Obama said that, over the next few months, he would be seeking openings with face-to-face talks with Iran. “Down with America,” they chanted. “Down with Israel.”

After three decades of enmity, just talking would be a huge departure, but the president wasn’t ruling it out.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, president, Iran (through translator): The new U.S. administration has announced it wants to make a change and start talking. It’s quite clear a real change should be fundamental and not tactical. It’s obvious that the Iranian nation welcomes real changes. Iran is ready to talk, but in a fair atmosphere of mutual respect.

Ahmadinejad dwells on Bush era

LINDSEY HILSUM: But there are lots of buts. It's too soon to let go of the recent past.

This is President Ahmadinejad's opportunity to respond to President Obama's public overtures, but what he chose to do was keep talking about George Bush. He must have said "Bush" 10 or 15 times. But the name "Obama" never passed his lips.

On display, the new symbol of anti-Americanism. Beyond the crowd, the new symbol of Iranian power, a model of the Omid satellite launched last week and made, according to the president, with all-Iranian missile technology.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I announce officially here today that Iran is a real superpower.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Iranians say they want the Americans to unclench their fist first.

What is it that Iran is asking for as a starting point?

SAYED MOHAMMED MIRANDI, Tehran University: Well, the United States is holding almost $20 billion of Iranian assets for 30 years now. The American government is demonizing Iran and has been demonizing Iran for the last three decades.

It is putting in almost $100 million a year, officially, every year for regime change. I think there's a lot that the Americans have to do in order to show to the Iranians that they really want to bring about change.

LINDSEY HILSUM: After his speech, the president was off. Saying Iran might be ready to talk to America is significant, that 30 years after the Islamic revolution, the Iranian government wants to show that it's strong enough to dictate terms.

Religious rulers adapting to Obama

JIM LEHRER: Lindsey Hilsum's second report is about how Iran's religious rulers are dealing with challenges at home and overseas.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Flying over the graveyard to the martyrs, dropping not bombs, but flowers. True believers come here to mourn the dead and reflect on their revolution.

Now there's a new challenge: Will they reject or embrace an American president who says he wants to end 30 years of enmity between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

What do you think of President Obama?

IRANIAN MAN: Obama, I think it is better than the Bush.

IRANIAN WOMAN (through translator): If Obama takes into consideration human rights, Muslim rights, and Iranian people's rights, there might be a way for negotiations.

IRANIAN MAN (through translator): Obama is just continuing George Bush's policies, and I don't think he'll do anything special.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The band plays when the important people arrive to lay their wreaths. But in the end, only one person's view really counts here. Watching over everything is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds ultimate power.

Sadeq Kharrazi knows how things work in the inner circle. If the supreme leader is to change his attitude to America, he says, the new administration will have to change more than tactics.

SADEQ KHARRAZI, Iranian diplomat: He doesn't believe for changing of body language. He believes for the changing of the policy of Americans. The Americans make a coup d'etat. The Americans support Saddam. The Americans wanted to change the Iranian political system. And, also, American make a sanction, different sanctions, and embargo, and freeze of Iranian assets.

Women's rights activists imprisoned

LINDSEY HILSUM: Those were heady days back in 1979. The millions of Iranians who rose up to overthrow the American-backed regime of the Shah wanted an end to corruption and cruelty. Not everyone wanted an Islamic revolution, which has continued to define itself, even after Ayatollah Khomeini's death, by anti-Americanism.

Thirty years on, as Iran prepares to celebrate the revolution, you wouldn't expect the same kind of spontaneity and excitement, but there's still something brittle about this place. That's partly because of the fear of American interference and influence.

If the two countries are going to have genuine negotiations, it's not just a question of the nuclear policy. Iran is going to have to open up, but the current conservative government is doing the opposite. It's clamping down and closing in.

A celebration of Iranian women, provided they have the appropriate revolutionary beliefs and dress. It's part of this week's official marking of the 10-day dawn, the run-up to the revolution.

In the late '90s, under a reformist president, women became less constrained, but the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has turned back the clock. For 16 years, a feminist magazine called Zanan, meaning "women," was tolerated, but now it's been banned. In recent months, several women's rights activists have been imprisoned.

SHAHLA SHERKAT, editor, Zanan Magazine (through translator): The current government in Iran is always worried about a revolution, and it seems strange to me that people like bloggers, Zanan, women, or other people in society are accused of plotting one.

I'm not the only person who thinks this. We are many. If the government of Iran were mature -- and it's the 30th anniversary now -- they shouldn't have to worry and imprison or restrict people.

Literary works censored

LINDSEY HILSUM: Saied Tabatabase was born the year of the revolution. His literary Web site has just been blocked. He runs the Iranian equivalent of the Booker Prize, but says so many novels are now censored by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, this year is going to be for unpublished works only.

SAIED TABATABASE, literary editor (through translator): If we take a stand, then the next generation of writers will be able to write openly and publish worthwhile books. If we do nothing, as our predecessors did, we'll leave a worse situation and an even smaller readership.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Prizes here for books the authorities approve of. Conservatives say that foreigners have failed to understand that national cultural pride was born of the revolution.

HOJATULLAH AYUBI, counselor to the president of Iran (through translator): In Iran, after 30 years, the youth would like to go back to the slogans of the early days. The revolution has given them very valuable things, which they appreciate. If you try to understand these things, many of our problems with you would be solved.

LINDSEY HILSUM: At a Tehran art gallery, the exhibition Revolution Avenue, newly published photographs from 1979. For some, it's memory; for others, history.

IRANIAN WOMAN (through translator): What I remember is the great feeling we had in those days. We felt we could achieve anything.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Few here talk of reversing the revolution, but the next 30 years could be defined by how Iran's leaders interpret the new moves in Washington.