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Iranian soldiers commemorate Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return to Iran in 1979 with a cardboard cutout.
On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution -- returned triumphantly to Tehran on an Air France flight from Paris after 14 years in exile.

Now, 33 years later, that return was reenacted in a bizarre ceremony that saw guards carrying a giant cardboard cutout of Khomeini down the stairs of a passenger plane and a waiting crowd paying their respects to "him."

Iranians have been faced with many unusual and absurd events in the past three decades of the rule of the clerics. The February 1 ceremony, however, may have topped them all.

A series of pictures posted by the semi-official Mehr news agency shows two solemn looking guards carrying a cardboard Khomeini as others give the serious-looking, white-bearded cleric a military salute. A marching band is seen playing music in the background.

Another cardboard Khomeini -- this one smiling and seated -- popped up at a ceremony attended by Education Minister Hamid Reza Haj Babayi and other officials to mark the ayatollah's return to the Refah School, where he set up his headquarters 33 years ago. This cardboard Khomeini sat there while the others -- some looking a bit uncomfortable next to him -- drank tea and chatted.

The ceremonies with the cardboard Khomeini were aimed at glorifying an important moment in Iran’s modern history. But they appear to have had the opposite effect, producing several jokes and mocking comments among Iranians.

Upon returning to Tehran, Khomeini was asked by a foreign reporter how he felt about coming back to his homeland after so many years. He famously replied, “Nothing.”

One joke making the rounds of social media parodies that well-known exchange:

Khomeini’s cardboard cutout is asked how he feels about returning to Iran. "Khomeini was a human and even he didn’t have any feelings. I’m just a cardboard cutout," he says.

"We don't have any Akbar here."
"We don't have any Akbar here."
Khomeini’s cardboard cutout arrived in a very different Iran than the one the real Khomeini promised Iranians. He talked of freedom and justice, but the gap between the rich and poor has been widening and the country is frequently criticized by international human rights groups for its repressive policies.

The revolutionary fervor is long gone amid widespread disillusionment.

More than three decades after the 1979 revolution, Iran has repressed many of the children and founding fathers of the revolution with whom Khomeini helped establish the Islamic state.

They include Khomeini’s protege, former prime minister turned opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, who has been under house arrest since last February. Reformist cleric and opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, one of the founding fathers of the revolution, is also under house arrest.

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been isolated and sidelined because of his rivalry with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his criticism of the 2009 postelection crackdown.

Some of Khomeini’s relatives have also come under pressure over their support for the opposition movement.

A Photoshopped picture of Khomeini's cardboard cutout making the rounds on the Internet alludes to the present-day situation. It shows the seated Khomeini saying to officials next to him:

"Hi, guys. Very nice meeting you. But have you seen Akbar, by any chance? Hashemi?" Those sitting next to him pretend they have no idea who "Akbar" is and try to change the subject. “We don’t have any Akbar here.” They add: “We also don’t have [Mir Hossein Musavi] and [Mehdi Karrubi]. Let's change the topic. How are you?”

A man in Tehran told RFE/RL that the cardboard Khomeini ceremonies are a “huge charade.”

"Is this how [Iranian authorities] want to regain legitimacy? By creating a cardboard idol?” he asked.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
Police sweeps, disappearances, and mass trials followed the huge street protests (pictured) after the June 2009 vote. More recently, security forces have outnumbered the few protesters who have dared to come out.
An Iranian opposition group has called for silent rallies to be held in Tehran and other Iranian cities on February 14, accusing the government of wasting the country’s interests and resources.

The Coordination Council of Green Path of Hope issued the call on the anniversary of a protest last year that attracted tens of thousands of people and led to the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi.

The council has called for demonstrations in the intervening 12 months, but those calls have triggered tight security measures by the Iranian establishment and failed to draw opposition activists out into the streets.

Musavi adviser and Coordination Council of Green Path of Hope spokesman Ardeshir Amir Arjomand told Radio Farda that the Iranian establishment, which has heaped praise on the so-called Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, should grant Iranians the right to protest.

We're in a very difficult and dangerous situation, we have to do all we can to change the situation," Arjomand said. "The economy is mismanaged, there’s growing poverty, [and] economic structures are collapsing."

He described Iran’s international status as "shrinking significantly" and said his country is "facing major threats."

"Because of all these issues, we need to change the situation and bring people to the scene so that their voices of protest can be heard by the establishment," Arjomand said.

The Green Movement is an initiative led by Musavi that emerged after the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 and massive street protests challenging the result.

But the ensuing crackdown -- which included disappearances and allegations of torture, police sweeps, and televised mass trials -- has led opposition supporters to engage mostly in online protests rather than street demonstrations. More recently, security forces have outnumbered the few protesters who have dared to come out.

The Green Movement -- hobbled by the house arrest of founder Musavi -- has not been present as an organized force but its sympathizers have maintained their demands.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda and RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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