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Tension in Tehran

An elderly lady, wrapped in her black chador, knelt in front of the grave, flowers in hand, while her husband washed the gravestone with a hosepipe. Behind the stone, a glass-fronted cabinet carried a picture of a young man – their son. He'd been killed, age 19, during the Iran-Iraq war.

"Something has to be done for Iraq," said the mother, "so that all these people didn't die in vain."

The Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery spreads from the main highway southeast of Tehran -- seemingly endless rows of graves as far as the eye can see. The glass-fronted cabinets contain personal effects as well as photographs of the chillingly young men who died in the tens-of-thousands during the war.

Family members visit soldier's graves during an Islamic holiday in Tehran, Iran.


Today, an Islamic holiday, the cemetery was packed with relatives of the dead. There are few families in Iran not touched in some way by the war, in which a million people died, and which has helped shape attitudes towards the problems in Iraq today – and the prospects of sitting down with America to solve them.

"Iran's done all it can to talk to America," insisted Hojat, who lost his uncle during the second year of the war. "It's really up to them now to come to the negotiating table."

Another young man, born after the war, and sporting a spiky hair cut, told us he's lost an uncle and two cousins.

"America's only there for their own interests," he said. "And it's the innocent people who are paying the price."

The slogans on banners in the cemetery talk of bravery and martyrdom. In fact, the eight-year war, which ended in bloody stalemate in 1988, was as brutal as it was pointless. It was started by Saddam Hussein, and prolonged by Ayatollah Khomeini, who famously said that ending it was like drinking poison.

Iran sent human waves of soldiers, some as young as 13, to clear minefields by treading on them. It was a grim war of attrition, with widespread use of chemical and biological weapons by Iraq. The West backed Saddam Hussein.

Outside the cemetery sits an old tank, a relic from the war, now a monument to it. A group of children climbed over the turret, and gave a spirited rendition of "death to America" for our camera.

The attitudes of veterans are more measured, though. We met Ali Reza Shiravi, a retired civil servant, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Iraq.

"Of course we have an interest in Iraq," he said. "They're our neighbors. We fought them for eight years. What happens there directly affects us." He said Iran and American should talk – "but only on a level playing field, with no preconditions."

The cemetery sits beside the mosque where Khomeini is entombed. His successors want Iraq to be a fellow bastion of Shia Islam, though Iran's next move is more likely to be determined by pragmatism than ideology. Officials returning to Tehran from the Baghdad conference will be calculating whether sitting down with the United States at the next more senior conference in Turkey will help ease pressure on Iran over sanctions and their nuclear program.