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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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A Changing Iran Recalls Islamic Revolution

Feb. 12, 2016

People in Iran have marked the 37th year since the Iranian Revolution. It's the first anniversary since sanctions were lifted by major world powers. Sho Beppu reports from Tehran, as we take a close look at a country that’s at a crossroads.

Streets in Tehran are decorated with Iranian flags. They were put to celebrate the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

The anniversary of the Islamic Revolution is marked by a big parade. It is an occasion for the government to remind people of the achievements of the past 37 years. This year, attention is focused particularly on what message the leaders will send out about the recent nuclear deal.

"We managed to block the Iranophobia project and make the world realize that the Iranian nation is reasonable and seeks peace," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech.

But elsewhere, Iranians held a march against the United States, chanting slogans including “death to America.”

The anniversary of the revolution was also a reminder of how difficult it would be for Iranians to rid themselves of their mistrust of the West -- especially the United States.

"As our Supreme Leaders Khomeini and Khamenei said, America has been the Great Satan from the beginning, and it will remain the Great Satan to us forever," one of the protesters said.

Iran was slapped with Western-led economic and financial sanctions, especially after the issue of its nuclear program surfaced in 2002.

Now that sanctions have been lifted following a landmark nuclear deal, people in Iran have high expectations that their economic situation will improve.

But not everyone is upbeat about the agreement.

“I don't feel any change yet," says one woman in a local market.

Many Iranians seem to think it’s still too early to judge which direction the country will move in.

Mansur Majidi retired from his job with an airline company three years ago. He lives with his wife Zahra Ghane and their son, and they say their lives have been seriously affected by the sanctions.

"It came difficult because everything is very expensive," Majidi said.

The family survives on his pension. He receives about $1,100 per month. But the rent for their two-bedroom flat rose from about $70 a month to $800 as the sanctions were tightened.

They said they hope that the lifting of sanctions will not only mean a better economy but also greater contact with the outside world.

"Iranians are well educated and are knowledgeable. People have different occupations. Women especially are very active in society,” Ghane said. “People will come to Iran and see a different image from what it used to be. That's a very good thing for us."

The couple is cautious, however, about how soon change will come.

"It depends on the government, which has both supporters and opponents,” Majidi said. “People want to interact with other nations. Progress will be made only slowly."

But how will the lifting of sanctions change the way Iranians think?

"I think that would help the people to learn that the outside world are not their enemies,” said Mohammad Gholi Yousefi, a professor at Allameh Tabatabaai University.

“It will help them to have an idea that if you have good relations with developed countries, your welfare increases. From that point of view of course it is very important. But to what extent that would lead to changes in the system itself, I think it takes time."

So we're witnessing the start of a new reality in Iran. But, how will this affect the elections scheduled at the end of this month? And what will happen to Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia?

Voters in Iran will go to the polls later this month to elect a new parliament, and the outcome could influence whether the country will continue opening up to the outside world.

People are paying close attention in the days leading up to the vote, as NHK World’s Tehran Bureau Chief Kentaro Shinagawa reports.

The election will offer voters an opportunity to evaluate the diplomatic and economic policies of the government of President Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani has been championing to re-establish dialogue with the international community. In order to have economic sanctions lifted, Rouhani had to rein in the country's nuclear program. A public opinion poll in Tehran shows 80 percent of the people welcome the move.

But parliament remains firmly in the grips of conservative hardliners, who are critical of Rouhani's policy of promoting dialogue.

Moderates and reformists who support Rouhani want to take advantage of the public support to change the balance of power in parliament.

"If parliament cooperates with the government, it will help strengthen ties with Western countries,” said Etehad-e Mellat Party Secretary-General Ali Shakouri Rad.

“Iran can reach a status superior to that of its regional competitors such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. This can be a very good achievement for Iran."

Many young Iranians welcome dialogue with Western countries. Farzad Jashni has a store that sells Apple products.

"I believe Steve Jobs was a scientist, an inventor. His achievements were so great that I can’t put them into words," Jashni said.

Expectations are high that the lifting of sanctions will mean that authentic products will become available at lower prices.

"We've been released from the pressure of sanctions and naturally, big companies will come here and invest,” Jashni said.

“I think we have a bright future. We can expect to see the results in a few months' time. I'll definitely be happy if I can become an official Apple representative."

But not all young people are pleased about the policy of dialogue with the West. One of them is Ehsan Bagheri, a photographer.

Bagheri arranges actors with makeup, before taking a photograph. In one, he recreated a famous photo taken on the Pacific island of Iwojima. It was the site of a fierce battle between American and Japanese troops near the end of World War Two.

His version of the iconic image includes people in Middle Eastern dress lying injured or dead on the ground below US soldiers raising the American flag on the battle field.

Bagheri asserts that US power was built on the sacrifices of people like the Iraqis, Afghanis and Palestinians.

"Unfortunately Rouhani’s cabinet is too closely tied to the United States and these connections will hurt Iran`s position in the world," Bagheri said.

His recreation of the Iwojima photo is displayed on a billboard in the center of Tehran.

"I wanted to answer the question of what is American power and what lies beneath this power?" Bagheri said.

Conservative hardliners are concerned that the Rouhani administration is too optimistic about Western countries. They aim to win support from voters such as Bagheri to retain the majority in parliament.

"In this election, we must make more effort so that this anti-arrogant spirit will be preserved in the Islamic Revolution,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, a member of the Mo'talefe Party’s Central Committee.

“I can't stress enough how important this round of elections is compared to the previous elections."

Iran is at an historic crossroads as it strives to rejoin the international community.

Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shia cleric in January sparked widespread anger throughout the region. As NHK World's Dubai Bureau Chief Hideki Nakayama reports, the country's subsequent decision to cut diplomatic ties with Iran has added to concerns of increased sectarian tensions in the Middle East.

The already strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran took a turn for the worse after protesters in the Iranian capital, Tehran, attacked the Saudi embassy.

The attack followed the execution of the Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, where power remains largely in the hands of the Sunni royal family.

Anger against Saudi Arabia grew. Soon, protests spread throughout the region to countries such as Iraq, which has a large Shia Muslim population.

Bahrain, another country led by a Sunni royal family, joined Saudi Arabia in severing diplomatic ties with Iran. African nations with large Sunni populations followed suit.

Concerns are mounting that tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims could worsen.

Iran and Saudi Arabia share a long history of suspicion and conflict. People in some Sunni countries are worried that Iran may be trying to create a "Shia crescent" that would include Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In recent years, some people have started referring to the civil wars in Syria and Yemen as proxy wars.

Jamal Khashoggi is an expert on Saudi Arabian politics. He says the country has no choice but to stand up to Iran.

"We cannot accept Iran's hegemony over Syria and Iraq, and Lebanon and Yemen,” Khashoggi said. “That will weaken Saudi Arabia. That is threat to regional order and world security, and we have to defend our self. It is an existential position we are taking."

Khashoggi said in order to resolve the crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia, priority should be put on ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

"This situation could go as long as there is Iran expansionist, expansionism in the region,” he said. “A year, two years, till the Iranians are convinced that it is not worth it to defend the dictator like Bashar al-Assad and let the Syrian people choose for themselves or the Iranian stop the support to a sectarian party in Yemen. If that happened, this confrontation would end."

Another factor is the recent nuclear agreement struck between Iran and major world powers. Since the deal was reached, the US has stressed that its relations with Saudi Arabia, a traditional American ally, and its Arab neighbors remain unchanged.

But an expert on military and political affairs in Dubai says the nuclear deal has caused Saudi Arabia and other nations to lose trust in the United States.

"The administration of Barack Obama has proven to be determined to reach a deal with Iran at all cost,” said Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“This has seriously angered US allies in the Middle East. They felt they were betrayed by this administration, that this administration is no longer serving their interests, protecting their interests, and they are feeling compelled to act on their own."

Kahwaji said people in the region must realize that there's nothing to gain from conflict. He said that's the key to resolving the crisis.

"We're hoping the leadership in these two countries will realize that they cannot win, and I think public pressure will play a big role. When the public feels they are losing a lot from this continued conflict between them, they will be pressuring their own leaderships,” Kahwaji said.

“Of course, the international community, the world powers, they have to play their role. They have to at every occasion they get to put on pressure on both sides to sit with one another and reach a deal."