TEHRAN, Iran – Under a banner showing coffins draped with American, British and Israeli flags, more than 100 Iranian men and women pledged Thursday to become homicide bombers — if necessary — to defend their country and Islam.
The event, held in a burial area for war dead and martyrs, was similar to others in recent years, with Islamic chants and songs and volunteers donning white coverings to symbolize their willingness to die.
But this gathering — coming at a time when many Iranians worry their country could come under attack by the United States or Israel — was tailored to send a message of defiance against any possible military action over Iran's nuclear program.
"The threats from America have swelled our ranks and given us added conviction," said 27-year-old Margess, who like the other volunteers would only give her first name and used a scarf to cover all but her eyes. "We will stand up against them with our lives."
No weapons or explosives were displayed, but the ceremony was organized by a shadowy group believed to have links to the Basiji paramilitary group that is backed by Iran's Islamic regime.
A huge banner used as a backdrop showed flag-covered coffins. And a message — in English — promised to "damage the U.S. worldwide" in retaliation for any attack on Iran.
Six nations — the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany — are seeking a possible incentive package for Iran to entice it to give up uranium enrichment. The package could include dropping the threat of military action but still bring sanctions.
Iran insists its nuclear program is only for peaceful energy purposes, but Washington and allies believe Iran also seeks to develop atomic weapons.
It's unclear how the potential homicide bombers are recruited or trained, although several claimed to be Basiji members. Officials claiming to represent the group refused to give details, and the event appeared largely staged for the media.
Some of the women volunteers held their children on their laps.
"If asked by Iran's leaders, we will fight anywhere," said Hussein, 56, a volunteer with a wife and four children. "The world should know that Iranians embrace martyrdom."
One of the organizers — from a group calling itself the Headquarters for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement — shouted out names and handed out silver dog tags.
Volunteers mingled around monuments to attackers, including a Palestinian homicide bomber, an Iranian militiaman killed by the U.S. forces in Iraq and two commandos who helped carry out the 1983 blast at Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. servicemen. An almost simultaneous bombing killed 56 French peacekeepers.
"Hezbollah, Hezbollah," the crowd chanted as a singing group supported by the Lebanese guerrilla group began songs calling for Islamic resistance. Iran is one of the key backers of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah.
The volunteer bombers waved Qurans, the Muslim holy book, and one held up a placard paraphrasing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution: "Our nation is the first to prove that America can't do anything."
"We are here to prove that Muslims — that Iranians — have solidarity and we will willingly shed our blood," said Azadeh, a 20-year-old volunteer who wore a postcard of Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pinned to her white cloak.
On each postcard a message was stenciled: "Those who are ready to die."
"I only have one son and he's volunteered as a martyr," said Marium Nematzadeh, 56. "I have deep belief in my religion and my leaders. I would even become a bomber if asked."