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How Iran's true believers pass the torch

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Mohamad Reza Rashidi's devotion is measured by the plastic water bottle he brings to the cemetery every few days to wash the dusty gravestone of his favorite martyr.

The young student was not even born when Iran's devastating 1980-88 war with Iraq ended, leaving 1 million dead and wounded. But the core values of its 1979 Islamic revolution, such as sacrifice and martyrdom, burn inside him as they do in so many of his peers.

"[Veterans] didn't go to war with arms ... they defeated the enemy with their beliefs," says Rashidi, who aims to become a "soldier of Imam Mahdi" – the hidden imam whom Shiites expect to return someday to bring justice.

"It could be a message to tell the US that we are not afraid of them," he adds, standing in the expansive Ahvaz war cemetery amid a sea of flapping Iranian flags. "If we were scared, there would not be so many martyrs."

Such words may sound like the rehearsed platitudes of flag-burning anti-US rallies in Tehran. But the voices coming from this area near Iran's border with Iraq, which bore the brunt of the fighting against Iraq two decades ago, speak of revolutionary ideals still deeply held. Hardline conservatives committed to these ideals typically rely on 20 percent of votes in Iran, analysts say – and much more in times of national crisis.

It is they who are passing the ideological torch of the Islamic Republic from father to son. At a time when tensions are running high with Iran – from speculation about US military action over Iran's nuclear program to Iran's detention of 15 British sailors – these true believers say they are ready, again, to sacrifice their lives to preserve Islamic rule.

"Those who believe will still fight to their last breath," says Haji Ahmad Palash, who lost a son and brother to the war. Another son and brother were disabled; yet another brother spent 10 years as a POW in Iraq.

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