Chant ‘Death to America’, but talk to America

While most Iranians support talks with the West, the hardliners are saying not so fast.

The anti-US rallies, marking the anniversary of the US embassy takeover, were "a bold message to President Hassan Rouhani and his team of negotiators not to trust Washington in their talks to resolve the nuclear standoff and ease the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran," writes Khosrow Soltani [EPA]

Tehran- Thirty-four years after the seizure of the US embassy, also known in Iran as the “US den of espionage”, Iranians are split over whether it is still appropriate to chant “Death to America” and “Down with the US”.

November 4, the “National Day against Global Arrogance” as designated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, is an annual event marking the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran by a group of Muslim university students in 1979. Some 52 US embassy staff were taken hostage for 444 days which resulted in a break in diplomatic relations between the two countries ever since.

In what observers described as the largest anti-US rallies in Iran, hundreds of thousands marched throughout the nation on Monday, chanting “Death to America” and burning the US flag. The rallies organised by hardliners were a bold message to President Hassan Rouhani and his team of negotiators not to trust Washington in their talks to resolve the nuclear standoff and ease the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran.

After the election of reformist President Rouhani in June, the Iranian and US governments have shown a desire towards renewing bilateral diplomatic relations.

'Death to America' was the manifestation of the Iranian nation's determination and resistance against 'the dominance of oppressive and untrustworthy America.'

by - Revolutionary Guards

The focal point of this breakthrough was a historic telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, when the latter visited New York in September to attend the UN General Assembly.

The phone conversation was the first direct communication between the Iranian and US presidents since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The initiative was received warmly by many in Iran, while the hardliners reacted with suspicion and welcomed Rouhani back in Tehran with eggs and shoes.

‘Death to America’ must stay

Hardliners have repelled calls from prominent moderate figures, including former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to drop the “Death to America” chant at official gatherings, especially at Friday prayers.

Editor-in-chief of the hard-line daily Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, published an article recently titled “No U-turn” in which he fiercely attacked Rafsanjani. He accused Rafsanjani of “distorting statements and guidelines [set out]” by the late leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He said Rafsanjani was trying “to support justifications for the telephone conversation between Rouhani and Obama, and hoped to eliminate the ‘Death to America’ slogan from our political culture.”

Rafsanjani has said Ayatollah Khomeini was in favour of halting the slogan “Death to America” before his death.

But the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) released a statement on its website[Pr], saying the slogan “Death to America” was the manifestation of the Iranian nation’s determination and resistance against “the dominance of oppressive and untrustworthy America”.

In another statement issued on the eve of November 4, the IRGC said 34 years after the takeover of the “den of espionage” in Tehran, the disclosure of the White House’s “shameful” measures in tapping telephone calls of top officials and ordinary people of other countries has made it clear that the expression “‘den of espionage’ rightly describes what the US embassies do all over the world”.

On the same occasion, members of the Iranian parliament (Majlis), in their open session on Sunday, shouted “Death to America” and said the Iranian nation will “proudly” continue with the slogan.

To keep the anti-US spirit high, the hardliners also unveiled two new “Death to America” songs at the former US Embassy in Tehran a few days before Tuesday’s rallies.

Obstructionists at work

Setting up  the “Down with America” (also called “Down with USA”) art awards, which was partly sponsored by Tasmin News Agency [Pr], an affiliate of the IRGC, has given rise to questions about whether the IRGC seeks to obstruct the upcoming talks between Iran andthe P5+1.

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of Iranians want to give relations between the two countries a chance, thus supporting the government’s initiatives in this regard.

Negotiations with the P5+1 are to resume in Geneva on November 7 and 8 where President Rouhani hopes to hammer out a deal to end the sanctions which have badly hurt the country’s economy. The conservatives are watchful that no concessions be made that would compromise Iran’s sovereign right to peaceful nuclear technology.

To ease pressure on Rouhani, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threw his weight behind the Iranian negotiating team. However, he reiterated his pessimism over talks with the US.

The Supreme Leader’s support for the chief negotiator has always been a must for the negotiating team to have credibility in the talks, however, this year, fiery statements have been made even in the Majlis, which called the negotiating team compromising and naïve.

To silence those who are opposed to moves made by Rouhani’s team, Ayatollah Khamenei who is Iran’s ultimate authority on all state matters, on Sunday, voiced strong backing for the president’s push for nuclear negotiations saying, “Nobody should weaken or insult them or consider them as compromisers.”

Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks indicate that not only should domestic political groups inside the country support the negotiating team, but also the so called P5+1 should know that despite some controversial stances, there exists a unified voice and full-fledged support for the negotiating team in Iran.

Ayatollah Khamenei said he was not optimistic, but he supported revived talks with the world powers over Iran’s nuclear drive as they are “incapable of hurting the Islamic Republic”.

However, the Supreme Leader said of the US, “We should not trust a smiling enemy.” Khamenei also criticised the US’ policy in approaching Iran’s nuclear work on the two fronts of sanctions and diplomacy. “The Americans smile and express a desire for negotiation; on the other hand, they immediately say that all options are on the table,” he said, referring to the US and Israeli threats of military action should the talks fail.

The Leader said the US opposed the entity of the Islamic Republic and the influence, prestige and authority of the system elected by the Iranian nation.

Public support for talks

Despite all this pessimism, a recent poll which is said to have been conducted by Rouhani’s government, has found that between 80 percent and 90 percent of Iranians want to give relations between the two countries a chance, thus supporting the government’s initiatives in this regard.

Alef website affiliated with conservative MP Ahmad Tavakoli, announced that the 10 – 20 percent who do not want any relations with the US still agree to end the “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers.

To find out if the US and its Western allies are really honest in their talks with Iran, and if IRI Supreme Leader and anti-US hardliners are right to be so pessimistic, we need to wait for the outcome of these talks.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is very optimistic about the outcome of the talks with P5+1. A positive outcome would mean a big victory for the Rouhani government and gradual lifting of the sanctions; otherwise the hardliners would happily go on with their “Death to America” slogan, and all the hollow benefits hostility to the US would bring them.

Khosrow Soltani is a senior journalist based in Tehran.