By Yeganeh Torbati

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian leaders hoping to lift morale at a time of rising prices, food shortages and threats of attack from Israel are drawing on memories of another era when people united against a common foe: Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

But whether the government can rekindle the passion that powered Iran's huge war effort a generation ago remains an open question.

The 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed, provides a ready comparison for officials looking to frame Iran's present isolation over its disputed nuclear program as an unwarranted aggression.

"Saddam's war against us was not a war between us and one government; it was an international war against us," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in July. "These challenges ... are not new for the Islamic Republic."

Western nations suspect Iran is covertly developing a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran says its nuclear activity is only for peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Memories of the hardships borne by Iranians during the war with Iraq are still seared into the country's consciousness.

Tens of thousands of civilians died in bombardment of cities. Teenage boys volunteered for the front and were killed in droves. Decades later, thousands of Iranians still suffer the ruinous effects of Saddam's chemical weapons.

The war, known in Iran as the "sacred defense," is marked by memorials and large murals of battle scenes. Metro stations and many streets in Tehran are named after war "martyrs."

Iranian officials say sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe against Iran's oil and banking sectors to force Tehran to stop its nuclear work amount to "economic warfare."

Renewed threats by Israeli leaders of a strike on the nuclear sites have contributed to the sense of siege.

Some leaders hark back to the "imposed war" terminology of the 1980s, adopted because the conflict began when Iraq invaded.

Influential cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati invoked the sacrifices of Iranians in an era he compared to the present.

"During the imposed war, the entire nation was mobilized. Even women were helping behind the front," he said in a sermon in August, the Fars news agency reported. "The economic crisis is in reality a war which the enemy is waging against Iran."

Thanks partly to Western sanctions, Iran's currency has lost about half its value this year, while an estimated 50 percent drop in oil exports compared to last year has cost billions in lost revenue. The government puts inflation at 23 percent, but unofficial estimates put it at double this.

The government has urged Iranians to adopt a "resistance economy", without specifying what that means beyond preparing for tough times. One cleric has suggested Iranians meet their protein needs with egg soup if they cannot afford meat.

Queues this summer for government-subsidized chicken reminded older Iranians of the war years, when butter and sugar were luxuries and people lined up for hours to buy milk.

"They even used to give coupons for cigarettes in the early days of the (1979) revolution," said a tweet in Persian. "Today, they said come and get subsidized chicken. Welcome to the past era."

DEFINING THE ENEMY

But Iran is now a very different place from the Iran of 1980, and the enemy is much less easy to define - and demonize.

"During the war with Iraq, most people including me believed we were oppressed by big powers that were helping Iraq and giving Saddam weapons," said Nasrin, a 43-year-old housewife who once sewed sheets and clothing for Iranian frontline soldiers.

"Many young people nowadays are not happy with the government and think the government is to blame for the country's isolation," said Nasrin, who like all the Iranians interviewed for this article did not want her full name used.

"I see my own daughters today and I often think how different they are from when I was their age. They are peace-loving people who think it is wrong for Iran to have bad relations with the rest of the world."

In 1980, the youthful Islamic Republic and its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini enjoyed a deep reservoir of popular support, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

"Ayatollah Khomeini led the people of Iran through the initial stages of the war after leading them through a historic revolution," he said.

That support will be difficult for Khamenei to replicate, Javedanfar said, especially after the widespread popular unrest that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election. Protesters said the vote, endorsed by Khamenei, was rigged.

"Iran's young generation is not as passionate as the one during that time (the Iraq war)," said 49-year-old Sotoudeh, an interior designer. "They are disillusioned somehow.

"They want jobs, security and a free environment. They never experienced the social freedoms that we had before the revolution, but nevertheless they love Iran."

Rising food prices sparked protests in the northeastern town of Neishabour in July in a rare expression of discontent, according to a YouTube video and reports on Iranian news sites.

"They (the government) will certainly attempt to recreate this narrative of Iran versus the world, but at the end of the day far more Iranians care about the price of chicken than they do enriched uranium," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Several Iranians said they believed people would unite behind the government if Israel struck Iran's nuclear sites, though perhaps less fervently than during the Iran-Iraq war.

An Israeli attack would probably involve air strikes targeting nuclear sites, rather than the full-scale air and ground invasion undertaken by Iraqi forces, depriving the government of images that could help stir nationalist sentiment.

"In case of an attack, we might not see as many young people volunteering to fight in a battle but I am sure they would not stay indifferent," Sotoudeh said. "They would put up with harder conditions because they love their country."

Others say Iranians, now accustomed to relatively high living standards, would not easily tolerate shortages and austerity again. Rising oil revenue in the last decade has enabled an expansion of the middle class. Foreign luxury goods fill shopping malls in major cities.

"The youth nowadays are much more materialistic and don't give priority to the ideas that dominated our minds back then, such as preserving the Islamic government," said Ali, 53, an insurance manager who volunteered to fight in the 1980s.

"That said, I'm pretty sure these modern young Iranians would surprise everyone if a foreign country attacked," he said.

"They might be after the latest cars, fashion and rock music but if they felt their country Iran was in danger, they would defend it with all they have."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Alistair Lyon)