It should have been the high point of festivities for the glorious 30th anniversary of Iran's revolution. But 15 minutes or so into President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech, people began to leave.
These were supposedly the hardliners, the most loyal and conservative of the President's constituents, out in big numbers to honour the 1979 uprising. These are the people for whom the "death to America" rhetoric has played best over the years and who, we in the West assume, blindly back an uncompromising Iranian approach to the rest of the world.
Yet among the crowds as Mr Ahmadinejad returned a tentative olive branch to Barack Obama, there was a strong sense that even these people were weary with the ritual denunciations and might be ready to contemplate a reconciliation with the US. There was also a firm hint that at least some, even in this flag-waving throng, were underwhelmed by Mr Ahmadinejad himself.
Down in the front rows of the crowd, the chador-wearing women chanted with gusto. But where I stood, directly beneath the Azadi, or Liberty, monument – a 1970s-built monstrosity that symbolises the revolution – it felt more like a predictable football game as people chatted and joked during the speech and then, too soon perhaps as it turned out, headed early for the exits. "He's talking bullshit," one man said to another as they left.
At that moment, Mr Ahmadinejad was boasting about aluminium production, the number of new phone lines installed and an apparent massive boost in tourism. "Is he talking about Iran?" one woman muttered to her husband. No mention of the 20 per cent inflation, chronic unemployment and economic crisis. And when Mr Ahmadinejad said Iran owed everything to Allah, another man quipped: "Let's hope he doesn't blame the high prices on God."
Many were genuinely moved, carrying placards saying "30 years of freedom, 30 years of glory". Somayeh Shahi, 23, a student, confided that she "hated" the US and didn't believe Mr Obama. "We don't trust him," she said. But the numbers were unimpressive (about 400,000 out of a city population of 10 million) for such an auspicious anniversary. And while there were no roars of approval when the President said he would be ready for dialogue, some in the crowd had already decided he should."Yes it would be better for us to speak to Obama," said Majid Ahmadi. "But the Americans must listen."
And among the millions of Iranians who stayed away, most, even if they support a tough nuclear policy, long for an end to isolation and reconciliation with the US. "You in the West have to decode what is going on," said a student who sums up the Iranian paradox. She wears a full chador, yet thinks her President is "a joke" who has needlessly picked fights with the world Iranians never wanted. "People in Iran are not opposed to engagement with the US, as long as it is on equal terms."Reuse content