Hundreds of thousands in Iran mark 40th anniversary of Islamic Revolution

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched and some burned U.S. flags on Monday to mark the 40th anniversary of the triumph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shia cleric who toppled the Shah in an Islamic Revolution that rattles the West to this day.

President Hassan Rouhani once again defiant in the face of U.S. economic sanctions

An Iranian girl poses with a potrait of the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, during a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of Islamic Revolution in Tehran on Monday. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched and some burned U.S. flags on Monday to mark the 40th anniversary of the triumph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shia cleric who toppled the Shah in an Islamic Revolution that rattles the West to this day.

On Feb 11, 1979, Iran's army declared its neutrality, paving the way for the collapse of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the United States's closest ally in the Middle East.

State TV showed large crowds defying frigid weather and carrying Iranian flags while chanting "Death to Israel, Death to America," trademark chants of the revolution.

One banner read: "Much to the dismay of America, the revolution has reached its 40th year."

The large turnout in state-sponsored rallies came as Iranians face rising prices, food shortages and high inflation that have triggered waves of protests.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers last year and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, dealing a blow to the country's economy. Iranian officials said the move amounted to "economic warfare"

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a fiery speech in Azadi Square in Tehran on Monday. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)

In a speech at Tehran's Azadi square, President Hassan Rouhani dismissed U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, saying U.S. sanctions could not break the Islamic Republic.

"We will not let America become victorious – Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties, but we will overcome the problems by helping each other," he said in a speech.

Iranians carried cardboard cutouts of dogs. One had the face of Trump and the other the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Regional influence has increased

The United States and its Arab allies have viewed Iran with great suspicion since the Islamic Revolution swept the Shah from power in 1979, fearing Khomeini's radical ideology would inspire Islamic militants across the Middle East.

Today, Iran enjoys influence through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, raising concerns in Sunni Saudi Arabia, which accuses its rival of trying to dominate the Middle East. Tehran denies the allegations.

"The world saw when Iran decided to help people of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, they achieved victory. The enemies are now confessing to their defeat," said Rouhani.

Iranians march towards Azadi Square during Monday's rally. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

A senior commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guards said Tehran would not withdraw its forces from the region, dismissing U.S. calls that Iranian regional influence should be curbed.

"The enemy cannot ask us to leave the region. They must leave the region," said Brig.-Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. "We will help any Muslim anywhere in the world."

Iran was determined to expand its military power and ballistic missile program despite mounting pressure from hostile countries to curb Iran's defensive work, state TV reported Rouhani as saying.

Soldiers, students, clerics and black-clad women holding small children flocked to the streets of cities and towns, many carrying portraits of Khomeini and Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.