Iran's hardliners keep 'Death to America' alive on US embassy anniversary

Turnout at Iran's annual commemoration of the embassy seizure today was the largest in years. But do hardliners have the clout to disrupt talks on Iran's nuclear program?

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian protesters burn an American flag during an anti-American rally in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets Monday outside the former US Embassy in Tehran in the biggest anti-American rally in years, a show of support for hard-line opponents of President Hassan Rouhani's historic outreach to Washington.
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Chants of “Death to America!” rang out in Tehran today as protesters trampled on and burnt US flags outside the former US Embassy to mark the 1979 embassy seizure.

The demonstration was a show of strength by hardliners seeking to derail centrist President Hassan Rouhani's international outreach just days before Iran meets with world powers to continue talks on curbing Iran's nuclear program. 

The depth of fervor at the annual commemoration has long been seen as a barometer of hardline support, and this year's showing was the largest in years. The 1979 takeover by militant students led to a 444-day hostage ordeal for 52 American diplomats and a rupture between the US and the nascent Islamic Republic.  

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"For sure, there are still [some] who vehemently oppose any rapprochement with the US, who still consider the US a ‘great Satan,’” says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University

But the hardline message is aimed more at Iranians than at Washington.

Mr. Rouhani, promising an “end to extremism,” broke a decades-long taboo by speaking directly to President Barack Obama by phone in September – only one of many steps that have made hardliners wince. 

“They want to settle scores. They want to send a signal to the government, to the reformists, to everyone else that, ‘We are still here, we are still powerful, be careful,' " says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. "They don’t want that perception to exist that they are weak.”

Those views are not likely to resonate with most Iranians. They decisively voted against a slate of conservative candidates in the June election that delivered a surprise victory for Rouhani. But hardliners don't need broad support to play spoiler at this critical juncture in nuclear talks, when trust on both sides still remains nonexistent.

"Their power does not come from the number of people who support them, but the resources at their disposal,” says Hadian-Jazy. “It is not how large they are, but how powerful they are. They have many resources: financial, bureaucratic and organizational, and media.”

Those resources have fueled an entire "hostility industry" for domestic consumption, Hadian-Jazy says. Students today were bused to the protest at the embassy, and journalists were issued press badges printed with the words “Down with USA.”

And in advance of the anniversary, banners attacking the US as vile and dishonest began appearing in Tehran, including one which showed a goateed negotiator – unmistakably meant to be Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – at the table with an American who, underneath the table and out of sight, wore camouflage military trousers.

Last week those banners were removed, and immediately after the rally today, Tehran municipality workers “rushed to the scene to sweep up the propaganda material left behind,” according to a tweet by Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times in the Iranian capital. Both indicate how eager Rouhani's camp is to tamp tensions with the US down as they head into a new round of talks. 

Putting up the banners was “an illegal action against national security,” said Tehran City Council member Gholamreza Ansari, according to ISNA news agency. “Unfortunately when it comes to domestic affairs some uncalculated moves and unplanned actions happen.”

The banners were a “reminder to all” that Iranian spoilers were “very active,” Mr. Zarif said in Istanbul on Friday. “You said we don’t have a Tea Party? I wish you were right.”

Still good vs. evil?

Hardliners complain noisily that Rouhani and the US-educated Zarif are naive and are undermining the anti-American pillar of the Islamic Republic. The new president's vows to quickly ease economic misery in Iran by resolving the nuclear dispute have sowed suspicions that the new leadership is too eager to compromise and will be exploited. 

“The slogan ‘Death to America’ positions us against rapacious superpowers,” Hossein Allah Karam, the leader of the hard-line vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah was quoted as saying by the conservative Fararu website. “America is Iran’s enemy and today the critical wave – which I belong to – has an agenda to emphasize this mistrust and show it to the [Rouhani] government.”

From the podium today, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili portrayed US-Iran hostility as an “eternal” battle between ideologies, between good and evil, in which the “Death to America” chant was a vital symbol of resistance to US hegemony embraced by Iran’s “most intellectual people.” 

But Jalili also said that “all the nation stands behind” the Iranian team, following the top-level guidance to back Iran’s nuclear negotiating team as “sons of the revolution” that was delivered Sunday by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes all final decisions of state in Iran. 

“No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work.”   

But he also noted doubts. “We should not trust an enemy who smiles,” said Khamenei. “From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another side they immediately say all options are on the table,” he said, alluding to President Obama's comments that "all options" are on the table in regards to Iran.

Khamenei drew a link between the 1979 embassy takeover and the recent revelations that the US National Security Agency has built up a global spying network that has especially angered targeted US allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Thirty years ago, our young people called the US Embassy a ‘den of spies’ … It means our young people were 30 years ahead of their time,” said Khamenei. Echoing that view, Jalili said the embassy capture "showed that the revolution was on the right path."

A new course

Few know better the possible impact of hard-line spoilers than former President Mohammad Khatami, whose reform efforts were stymied during his 1997-2005 tenure.

“This administration does not have a halo.… It cannot miraculously solve every problem overnight,” Mr. Khatami told Tehran University students last week, according to a translation of Shargh newspaper by Al Monitor. “When I put myself in the place of the officials today, I can understand…. There are many difficulties and abundant expectations, and there are people with either good will or ill will who fuel these expectations.”

But, after decades holding top posts, Rouhani has support from Khamenei like Khatami never had. And Khamenei has moderated militant groups in the past.

“The hardliners in Iran are not independent, they see themselves as loyal and obedient to the leadership,” says a political analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named because of sensitivities that remain about working with foreign media.

“They are still not an organized political group like [conservative] principalists and reformists,” says the analyst. “So their voices are loud but they don’t play any role in decisionmaking now.” 

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