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The First Shots of a Revolution
Protesters topple statue of Shah.

The story begins in 1979 in Iran. In that year, the U.S.-backed Shah and his family fled the country, and exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran. Revolutionaries stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took staff as hostages. After 444 days in captivity, the hostages were finally released in January 1980, after the terms that had been laid out were met.

More than two decades later people in Iran are back on the streets, albeit for different reasons.

It is a pleasant Wednesday night in Tehran, capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A war may be raging next door in Afghanistan, but here in Mohseni Square, the kids are demonstrating about something more important. Iran's national soccer team has just defeated the United Arab Emirates to keep alive its hope of playing in the World Cup.

Up Mirdamad Boulevard the crowd spreads. The middle of the tree-lined boulevard has been taken over by kids in their teens and early twenties. Boys and girls... dancing.

Hostage blindfolded outside American Embassy in Tehran, 1979

While this may seem normal, in a country where dancing in public is forbidden, it is a small act of defiance. Not that the boys and girls are dancing with each other. Things haven't gone that far, but here in Iran the authorities are taking notice. This is the third soccer demonstration in as many weeks. Ten years ago, five years ago, maybe even last year, this scene would have been impossible to imagine. Now, signs of change are all over Tehran.

A half-hour or so before kickoff, in an Internet cafe in the fashionable Farmanieh section of town a TV broadcasts evening prayers. In another corner, a young woman yaks away to a friend in Paris via the net.

The cafe is a hangout for the neighborhood's affluent twenty and thirty year olds like Mehezda, 34, who works in marketing for BBD&O. He says the weekly soccer demonstrations aren't necessarily political, that they are a product of youthful energy, not desire for another revolution.

Football is as good a place as any to sublimate youthful life force in a society where 65 percent of the population is under 25, dancing in public is forbidden, drinking is illegal, and women must cover their head in public and wear clothing that obscures their shape.

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The demonstration at Mohseni Square had been underway for about half an hour. To call it a riot would be an exaggeration. Any college police force in America would be grateful for such a light-hearted celebration after a big win by the football team. Tehran's uniformed police were laughing along with the crowd, but the Basiji weren't.

The Basiji are a kind of plainclothes militia, loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Two years ago, the Basiji brutally put down demonstrations for greater personal freedom at Tehran University.

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As the soccer revelry grew louder the militiamen grew angrier. They set off tear gas and chased the dancers up Mirdamad Boulevard, flailing away with sticks and truncheons. The Basiji come from a different part of the city.

Tehran's topography perfectly reflects the capital's social order. In this city of 12 million, the wealthy live above the smog and gridlock along the flanks of the Alborz mountain range. As you move down the slope, you descend through Iran's social classes. At the bottom, in the hot flatlands south of the city center, you find the working poor and the recent arrivals from the countryside. These are the late Ayatollah Khomeni's people. This is where the Basiji come from.

There, at the southern edge of the city is where you will find the tomb of the founding father of the Islamic Revolution. It has become a modern shrine for his supporters.

Protesters burn Uncle Sam in effigy, in Anti-American demonstration. (AP)

Next door to the shrine is the Behesht e Zahra cemetery, the Martyr's Cemetery. In the Islamic Republic, soldiers don't simply die in combat, they are "martyred." Thousands of the dead here are among the more than half a million Iranians killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Many of those buried here were also called Basiji, special volunteers. They were the men who made up the suicide squadrons sent by the Ayatollahs against the army of Saddam Hussein.

From top to bottom, Tehran, now more than twenty years after the Islamic Revolution, has the feeling of the Soviet Union during the time of glasnost. Up the hill, reform seems an unstoppable force, down the hill among the families of the martyrs, allegiance to the revolution and its puritanical Islamism is strong. Blood sacrifice is the ultimate loyalty oath.

The tug of war between reformers and conservatives, between the secular and the religious in Iran predates the revolution. It predates the Shah, in fact it has been part of Iranian society for at least 150 years.

Youssef Alijabadeh, of the Iranian Academy of Philosophy says democratic society in the Western world is product of the Enlightenment. He says in the West, the movement took 200 years to mature and succeed, but "In the developing world, when the question of setting up democratic structure arises, this process is completely overlooked."

Continued: Struggle for the Direction of a Nation