Thousands of Iranians massed on Tuesday for commemorations marking 41 years since the Islamic Revolution, in a show of unity at a time of heightened tensions with the United States.
Waving flags of Iran and holding portraits of the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they converged on Tehran’s Azadi Square despite chilly temperatures.
“Death to America” and “We will resist until the end,” read some of the banners carried by those in the crowd.
“Iran is looking forward to creating another epic,” read the news ticker on state television, which called for a massive turnout.
The celebrations mark the day that Shiite cleric Khomeini returned from exile and ousted the shah’s last government.
State media said the rallies would take place in more than 5,000 cities, towns and districts all around Iran.
In the capital, Tehran, Iranians set off from 12 neighborhoods toward the central Tehran Freedom Square, where President Hassan Rouhani was due to address the crowds.
The state has appealed for a strong turnout as a show of solidarity after a year in which Iran has been shaken by protests and military tensions with the United States.
“Securing our country and our region depends on our unity, and participation in this rally is a symbol of this unity,” Hadi Khamenei, brother of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television.
Iran’s economy has been battered since US President Donald Trump in 2018 abandoned an international nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions and a stated campaign of “maximum pressure.”
When Iran raised petrol prices in November, nationwide protests erupted and turned violent before security forces put them down amid a near-total internet blackout.
Tensions with Washington escalated in early January when a US drone strike killed powerful Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
Iran retaliated by targeting US forces but then accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board, in a tragedy that sparked anger at home and abroad.
The Pentagon said Monday that the number of US service members diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries has shot up to more than 100 as more troops suffer the aftereffects of the Iranian ballistic missile attack.
Soleimani’s daughter Zeinab was to address the crowd at Azadi Square on Tuesday, followed by President Hassan Rouhani.
This year’s anniversary also comes ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in Iran.
Rouhani’s government has come under intense pressure from conservatives for agreeing the 2015 nuclear deal that has unraveled since Trump’s decision to withdraw from it and reimpose crippling sanctions.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution began with widespread unrest over the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The shah, fatally and secretly ill with cancer, fled Iran in January 1979.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini then returned from exile and the government fell February 11, 1979, after days of mass demonstrations and confrontations between protesters and security forces.
Iran later would vote to become an Islamic Republic, a Shiite theocracy with Khomeini as its first supreme leader with final say over all matters of state.
Anger over America allowing the shah into the country to receive cancer treatment in New York would later spark the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran by student militants and the subsequent hostage crisis, which kindled decades of enmity.
An Iranian rocket failed to put a satellite into orbit on Sunday, state television reported, the latest setback for a program the US claims helps Tehran advance its ballistic missile program.
The launch had been planned amid celebrations ahead of the February anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space program, and its nuclear efforts during this season.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a Likud election event, rubbed salt in the wound, saying: “We were notified today that Iran failed in launching a satellite. Alright. I’ll tell you what else they’re failing at: in transferring weapons to Syria and Lebanon, because we are operating there all the time, including at this time.”
There was some speculation in Hebrew media that the Israeli leader was alluding to possible Israeli involvement in the satellite’s failure, though there was no immediate information beyond Netanyahu’s vague comment to back up such an assertion.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says it has not violated the UN resolution, as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.
A former leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has warned that Iran is just looking for an excuse to attack Israel and “raze Tel-Aviv to the ground,” blaming Israel for allegedly helping the US kill Soleimani.
Speaking to Lebanon’s Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen TV station on Saturday, Mohsen Rezaei was asked if Iran would carry out its previous threats to attack Israel in the event of a war with the US.
“You should have no doubt about this. We would raze Tel Aviv to the ground for sure. We have been looking for such a pretext,” Rezaei said in remarks translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and released Monday.
This is not the first time Rezaei has threatened to destroy Israeli cities.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.