What better way to kick off a 40th-anniversary revolutionary celebration than to hold an arms exhibition in the nation’s capital?

Last week, thousands of families strolled through a central Tehran mosque to admire Iran’s military prowess in the face of punitive U.S. sanctions. Adults and children posed next to surface-to-surface cruise missiles and drones, cargo and reconnaissance planes. Others excitedly brandished armoured light rifles.

To a Canadian observer, the scenes are baffling. It’s hard to understand how people can be enamoured with 40 years of defensive achievements when the economy is struggling with domestic hardships and crippling U.S. sanctions. The Iranian rial has sharply devalued against the dollar since the 1979 revolution, driving up prices. In 1979, one U.S. dollar got 70 rials. This week, it exchanges for 42,000 rials. The re-imposition of sanctions has also barred foreign banks from doing business with Iran, severely limiting imports of food and medicine.

It’s difficult to find an Iranian inside or outside the country today who hasn’t been directly affected by the Iraq-Iran war in some way.

But the enthusiasm exhibited by Iranians visiting the exhibition is also confusing because it perpetuates American stereotypes about Iran being a weapon-harbouring terrorist country, which — in U.S. President Donald Trump’s always accurate utterances — is responsible for all of the conflicts in the Middle East.

There’s something missing in that judgement of the arms exhibition though: context. There is another way of looking at the 40th anniversary celebrations being marked across Iran right now, which is from the perspective of those within.

Strength in the face of adversity

First, a historical refresher. After the fall of Iran’s 2,500-year-old monarchy, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ushering in of a theocracy, post-revolution Iran was still finding its feet. It was militarily unprepared for its first conflict. Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, and the eight-year war ended in a stalemate. One million Iranians were killed, as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

A news report filed from Tehran by an Al Jazeera correspondent Zein Basravi last week shows that decades later, Iranians continue to view the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War as inextricably linked. In fact, it’s difficult to find an Iranian inside or outside the country today who hasn’t been directly affected by the Iraq-Iran war in some way.

From some Iranians’ perspectives then, the military showcase actually symbolizes the country’s strength and survival in the face of fierce adversity from hostile rivals. It’s also a sign of reassurance and protection to its people. “Iran’s military leaders want everyone to believe that it will not happen again,” reported Basravi.

And it hasn’t. Because if there’s one thing Iran can count among its successes — from an insider lens as opposed to a Western-centric one — it is military prowess in the region.

Most recently, Iran declared victory in Syria, along with allies Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Shia Islamist group Hezbollah. Iran’s revolutionary leaders also created and funded (and continue to fund) Hezbollah. Often called Iran’s “crown jewel” for its influencing power in the Middle East, Hezbollah now serves as a model for all Iran-allied groups in the region.

‘The revolution is dead’

There is no doubt, however, that Khomeini’s decision to end the social and economic grip of the U.S. on Iranian life (at popular demand, it should be recalled, as he won a landslide referendum victory upon returning from exile in Paris) came at a huge cost.

“The revolution is dead. None of the desires have been realized,” Ali Hedayat, an Iranian-Canadian academic based in Vancouver, tells me.

“There was a lot of Western intervention and people felt they were losing their identity.”

“What unites the Iranian people at the moment is disappointment and anger towards the Islamic Republic and genuine hatred toward the Trump administration,” he adds, referencing a recent interview in which the Iranian minister of petroleum told local press that the war with Iraq was easier to live through than sanctions.

Hedayat, 37, says he can vividly recall the Iran-Iraq war despite being only five years old at the time.

“It makes me so angry when I look back at it. Iraqis bombed civilian areas in Tehran. They attacked two of my neighbours’ houses. We had left 30 minutes before the rocket hit. My aunt and my cousin got injured badly but survived and now live in Toronto. But people there are still suffering from the chemical weapons” used by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Losing a sense of identity

For millennials, however, events like the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war don’t resonate at all. Saman Tabasinejad, a 25-year-old local Toronto newspaper editor born in Tehran, says it is instead events like 9/11 and the U.S. travel ban on Iran (along with six other countries) and resulting “Iranophobia” that preoccupy her.

An anthropology and political science graduate, Tabasinejad was attending Carleton University when a professor related an anecdote that led her to develop a greater appreciation for Iranians’ desire to forge their own path in 1979 — particularly after the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

“There was a lot of Western intervention and people felt they were losing their identity,” she says. “I had one professor who was from a small village in Iran, and he said he once went to go speak to the Imam before the revolution. The Imam had picked up a small navel orange from Florida. He looked at the orange and said, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Why do we have oranges from Florida here?’ This doesn’t make sense in our context.”

Tabasinejad pauses as she recalls the moment. “He meant, ‘Why am in this small village in Iran and importing this orange from Florida?’”

The ideals from the Islamic revolution may be far from reach, or indeed dead all together. Some argue that because Iranian millennials have no memory of the Iran-Iraq War or the revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Iran’s armed forces) have had to redefine revolutionary values and objectives to maintain legitimacy. Others attest that the calls for protest against government mismanagement grow louder each year and that another revolution is looming.

One thing is clear: The desire for change still exists, 40 years after the revolution.