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Anti-American Anger Mounts in Iran

American President Bush's "Axis of evil" speech has led to an outpouring of rage and anti-US protests in Iran as Iranians celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

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Iranian President Mohammad Khatami gestures under a picture of Iran's late revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini

"Death to America" - the same ritual chant that echoed through the streets of Teheran 23 years ago and ushered in the Islamic Republic, was heard once again in the Iranian capital.

Thousands of Iranians turned out yesterday to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution and to defy and mock at the recent US charge that Iran is part of an "axis of evil".

Iran infuriated at inclusion in "axis of evil"

President George Bush's ill-chosen words on January 29 in his state-of-the-union speech, which clubbed Iran, Iraq and North Korea as virtual "rogue states" has unleashed a wave of anger against America in Iran and aggrieved Iranians involved in helping Afghanistan back onto its feet.

US officials accuse Iran of developing weapons of mass destruction, harbouring al Qaeda fighters fleeing neighbouring Afghanistan and increasingly meddling in the affairs of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The last straw, they say is Iran's alleged involvement in a recent shipment of weapons to Palestinians fighting Israel.

Afghanistan and Middle East, two sore points

Iran is outraged at the American President's hostility after their substantial contribution to Afghanistan. Iran has hosted more than two million Afghan refugees for years. It also supported anti-Taliban groups long before the September 11 attacks in America.

Another sticking point between Iran and the US remains the Middle East. Iran condemns what it sees as America's condoning and approval of the displacement of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel.

Washington suspects Tehran of financing the militant and often violent Hezbollah and Hamas groups in the Middle East.

Anniversary rally occasion to pump up anger

The anniversary rally which is usually a occasion for the hard-line and conservative factions of society to reaffirm their commitment to the Islamic revolution, struck a more strident note this time.

Leaders across the political spectrum, moderate and conservative alike have called on people to participate and demonstrate their opposition to the US.

Supreme Leader and pillar of the clerical establishment Ayatollah Khamenei called for the demonstration to be a "slap in the face for Iran's enemies".

He had earlier lashed at the American President after his controversial speech and described him as the bloodthirsty President of "the Great Satan".

"The reason we are under threat is that the United States, or some of its leaders think they are masters of the world and they want the world to obey their policies," he told crowds in Tehran's Freedom Square.

Mild-mannered Khatami lashes out at Bush

Moderate and reformist President Mohammed Khatami said that this year's rally is particularly important in view of the accusations and threats levelled against Iran. The usually mild-mannered Khatami, not given to criticising foreign leaders branded Bush as "bellicose and insulting".

In a televised address to the nation he urged Iranians to turn out en masse and join demonstrations and rallies given the "baseless, erroneous and insulting statements against Iran" by the US.

He believes that people will be laying aside their differences and partisan considerations and speaking in one voice.

History of hostility between US and Iran

Relations between the US and Iran have been troubled for more than 20 years, ever since the Islamic revolution toppled the US-backed Shah.

Once Iran's chief ally before the revolution, Washington broke off ties with Teheran when in 1980 in the aftermath of the revolution, Iranian revolutionaries seized US diplomats and held 54 of them hostage for 444 days.

The US also imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, which threw a damper on its all-important oil industry and kept away foreign investors.

Moderate Khatami brings hope of reform

The impasse was broken when the moderate Shi'ite Muslim cleric Mohammed Khatami came to power in August 1997 with a whopping 70 percent of the popular vote against a hardline rival.

He promised to empower the people and loosen the authorities' hold on social, political and intellectual life. His vision of a more democratic Iran won praise in Europe, though the US remained cautious in its welcome.

Coming up against hardliners

But it's been an uphill battle for the moderate Khatami and his cabinet as his reforms have achieved little in the face of stiff conservative criticism of the hardline mullahs and judiciary.

The clerical establishment and hardliners have remained mistrustful of the policy of rapprochement that the reformist Khatami has been following with the western world.

And though the moderates and the conservatives seem to have put aside their differences and come together to denounce America, the rift between the two remains deep.