Anti-Americanism Grows in Iran — Again

Garrett Nada

The nuclear deal, announced in July, has not changed the anti-American rhetoric in Iran. Indeed, the pace of vitriol has noticeably increased. “US officials seek negotiation with Irannegotiation is means of infiltration and imposition of their wills,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in September, captured in a string of tweets on his English-language account.  

Hardliners in Parliament have also taken a tough stand. On November 2, 192 out of 290 lawmakers signed a letter vowing not to abandon the slogan “Death to America (also translated as “Down with the USA”),” first popularized after the United States took in the ailing shah, in 1979. The U.S. decision led students to seize the American embassy and more than 50 hostages. On the 36th< anniversary of the takeover, in 2015, the hardliners , “The honorable nation of Iran will under no circumstances be willing to put aside the ‘Death to America’ slogan because of the agreement on the nuclear issue; a slogan that has become a symbol of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the entirety of struggling nations have held Islamic Iran as a model for their own fight.” 

The conflicting signals out of Tehran reflect a wider debate over the nature of Iran’s relationship with the United States. Hardliners have been particularly aggressive against their own government officials for contact with the United States since the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s brief handshake with President Obama at the United Nations in September caused a firestorm. In an Instagram post, lawmaker Hamid Rasaee likened the encounter to embracing Satan (see below). The text reads, “Mr. Zarif! Did you sign the nuclear deal with the same hand?”
As the final arbitrator on all issues, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s comments have been particularly striking.
In a July 18 sermon, Khamenei chastised a string of U.S. presidents. “From the beginning of the Revolution until today, five other U.S. presidents died or were lost in history dreaming that they would force the Islamic Republic to surrender. You too will enjoy the same fate,” he said, apparently referring to President Obama. “You too will never achieve the dream.”
In November, the supreme leader’s office released the following video clip, “Satan’s Confessions,” which was based on the sermon.   
The supreme leader also has counseled against further diplomacy with the United States. Despite the end of sanctions, he warned in November for Iranians to “seriously avoid importing consumer goods from the United States." He also cautioned against getting sucked into the U.S. agenda in the Middle East. “U.S. goals in the region are diametrically opposed to Iran’s goals. Negotiation with the U.S. on the region is pointless,” he said in a speech, on November 1. ">On November 3, Khamenei said that the “Down with the USA” slogan still has strong support in Iran and does not mean death to the American nation, but rather “death to American policies” and “death to Arrogance.” He also warned that Washington has attempted to “beautify” its image and “pretend” that it is no longer hostile to Iran. The United States “will not hesitate” to destroy Iran if given the chance, he said.   

President Rouhani has taken a softer line. In an interview with CBS, he said the “Death to America” chant “is not a slogan against the American people.” He said it was a reaction to longstanding U.S. support for the shah as well as Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. “People will not forget these things. We cannot forget the past, but at the same time our gaze must be towards the future,” Rouhani said. He acknowledged the potential for future talks. “Many areas exist where in those areas it's possible that common goals, or common interests, may exist,” he told CBS. Hardliners have been concerned that the Islamic revolution will be compromised by Rouhani’s willingness to engage with the United States again. 


Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at USIP.


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Photo credit: Hassan Rouhani by Robin Wright