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Portrait of a veteran Iranian revolutionary

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"Let Mr. Bush know this ... if they attack, we shall attack them from land and sky," says Bakhshi. "When there are people like me – and 20 million other [volunteers] – who are ready to tie explosives to ourselves and go with fast-moving boats toward the American military ships, the people of the US do not like such a thing."

While certainly a vast overestimate of the number of suicide-ready devotees, Bakhshi's defiant worldview is not uncommon. It's rooted in Iran's history of victimization and "war stories" common to many devout Iranians.

Trusted by the regime, Bakhshi became active along the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, driving a vehicle with large speakers to boost morale of the soldiers with nationalist and religious chants. A well-known photo shows Bakhshi racing with a blanket to put out flames engulfing his vehicle after it was hit with an Iraqi tank shell, killing Bakhshi's passengers.

"He played nationalist songs of honor and power, to make people feel better," says Ali Rajabi, the Iranian photographer to took the famous shot. He recalls feeling the heat of the burning car, but says that Bakhshi ignored it as he repeatedly rushed in to try to save his two passengers.

"They were men of action, not just men of words ... [who] sit far back from the front lines," recounts Mr. Rajabi. "Near the border, the Iraqis knew this car."

Portraits of those who died in the car – along with those of Bakhshi's son and brother lost in the war – hang today in Bakhshi's house, in what he calls the "room of love." But two days after that incident, Bakhshi was back at the front to disprove reports that he also had perished in the fire.

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