Is Rouhani bringing an end to Iran's 'Death to America' chants?

Although some Iranians chanted the typical anti-US slogan during prayers in Tehran today, hard-liners are finding it harder to be heard.

Frank Franklin II/AP/File
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Hard-line Iranian revolutionaries chanted “Death to America” and burned US and Israeli flags after Friday prayers in Tehran today, one week after a historic phone call between Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama broke a 34-year taboo, heralding the promise of a new era of contact and nuclear diplomacy.

But Friday prayer leaders this week pledged to “support the wisdom” and “problem-solving” mission of Mr. Rouhani. And from a letter of support from 230 of 290 members of Iran’s conservative parliament to a resurrected debate about the pitfalls of the "Death to America" chant, analysts say hard-liners bent on perpetual conflict with the West remain headline-grabbing noisy – and still burn the Stars and Stripes – but have little influence right now.

Hard-line circles have criticized Rouhani’s new policy of outreach to the US and the West; the centrist cleric was greeted upon his return from a groundbreaking week at the United Nations General Assembly by a few dozen protestors who threw eggs and a shoe at him, disgusted that he was undermining Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

But while conservative Iranian newspapers, politicians, and some Revolutionary Guard officers have criticized Rouhani, the hundreds of supporters who also greeted him at the airport – among them the top foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – indicate the scale of support inside Iran for Rouhani’s policy of “moderation” and effort to lift crippling US-led sanctions.

“Normally you would expect much stronger criticism, an onslaught against Rouhani, and it hasn’t happened,” says an Iranian political scientist currently in Washington, who asked not to be named. Rouhani has “gone farther” than any of his predecessors in reaching out to the US since his surprise mid-June election victory over a slate of conservative candidates.

“Even these people [extremists] are under pressure; they know the tide is against them, both in terms of political momentum, post-election, and the broader sense that societal demands are much more serious than what they can offer,” says the political scientist. “These reactions are expected, and they signify that the extremists know they are in trouble.”

For now, Ayatollah Khamenei has spoken of a “heroic flexibility” in reengaging with the outside world, and ordered all power centers in Iran to support Rouhani’s government.

Even though Tehran’s Friday prayer faithful were twice led in chants of “Death to America” today, the actual sermon given by Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi said the US and Iran should “join hands” to overcome sanctions, and called on Obama to “come and work with” Rouhani to find solutions that might “save the region and the world from a dead-end and a crisis,” according to an Associated Press translation.

Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, a member of an advisory council to Khamenei, also spoke from the podium today, saying the US needed Iran’s help in Syria and that “honestly” Iran also needs the US to “remove these oppressive sanctions.”

The crowd erupted in another chant of “Death to America,” and Mr. Harandi replied: “I did not raise that slogan that you are chanting,” the AP reported.

Hoping for 'we told you so' moment

Hardliners have scuppered past efforts by Iran to reach out to the US, most famously in the first years of the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, which began in 1997. At home and abroad, Mr. Khatami’s agenda of change and openness was squashed by hard-line tactics and often violence.

Iran’s political pendulum swung far to the right during the last eight years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which were marked by combative rhetoric about the decline of the West and frequent Israel-bashing. Mr. Ahmadinejad made several outreach attempts – including writing letters to Presidents George W. Bush and Obama – but those were overshadowed by deep disagreements over Iran's controversial nuclear program, a covert war waged by the US and Israel against Iran, and ever-increasing sanctions.

A series of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers that began early last year made little progress. Saeed Jalili, a conservative candidate who ran against Rouhani in the most recent election, led the Iran team, although he will be replaced by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the next round of talks, which will be held in Geneva on Oct. 15 and 16. 

Some Iranian news websites identified one of the anti-Rouhani protestors at the airport as a senior worker in Mr. Jalili’s election campaign.

“No one expects Iranian opposition to the easing of tensions with the United States to go away,” notes Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, in an analysis written from Tehran this week. “Over 4 million people voted for Saeed Jalili [who was] deemed as the candidate who would continue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s path.”

“But there is also no denying that at least for now, the detractors are in the minority and mostly focused on the naïve nature of the current Rouhani policy and the presumed trust he may have in the possibility of real change,” writes Ms. Farhi. “They are preparing the ground for their ‘we told you so’ six months from now.”

The 100-days push

Rouhani’s diplomatic team is trying to deprive their detractors of exactly that satisfaction, hoping that a broad and speedy diplomatic push will yield concrete results. Rouhani promised economic improvement in the first 100 days after his Aug. 4 inauguration. He says Iran’s nuclear negotiations could be completed within just three to six months, and implemented within a year.

Reporting on his New York visit, which not only yielded the 15-minute call with Obama, but also a 30-minute private meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Zarif on the nuclear issue, Rouhani spoke in Tehran Wednesday of the “new circumstances that exist regarding Iran.”

Iran made progress, but Iranians “must know that the foreign policy matters ahead are not a smooth road,” Rouhani warned. “We have a difficult road ahead and cannot resolve problems of eight or ten years in ten days. There are many ups and down in the world of politics.”

And those don’t just come from abroad. Hard-liners have been lining up to express distaste, if not outright opposition, to Rouhani’s efforts to erase extremism. In the past week, one group created what it called a “Preservation of National Interests Committee” and complained of the Obama-Rouhani phone call: “It was natural for a shock to enter the children of the revolution.”

Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, praised Rouhani’s efforts in New York, saying they had “moved in the path of the Islamic revolution.” But he added that the Obama call “should have been postponed until after America showed practical measures.”

Among steps Maj. Gen. Jafari said he expected to see first were a “complete” lifting of sanctions and the US “desisting in its unfriendliness and plots against the people of Iran [and] allowing Iran’s nuclear program…”

Questioning 'death to America'

Rouhani’s outreach has even resurrected debate about the utility of chanting “Death to America.” This week former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – whose support, along with that of Khatami, ensured Rouhani’s victory – said that even the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had doubts about the slogan.

Rafsanhani first stated the controversial claim many years ago in his memoirs. This week it drew a predictable response, with one representative of Khamenei to the Revolutionary Guard stating that Iran’s differences with the US have been principled and historic, “and the [different] roots of these outlooks will remain until the end of time.”

“Anytime over the last 16 years since Khatami’s election, when there was discussion of reducing tensions and changing the rhetorical symbolism of this tormented relationship, [there were] attempts to eliminate ‘Death to America,’” says the Iranian political scientist. He added that a sense of “overwhelming change” too soon could “threaten people.”

“I would be careful if I were Rouhani…not to do all of this at the same time,” says the political scientist. “Too much is happening right now, so they have to be careful they don’t scare Khamenei as well, that things are getting out of hand.”

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