by John Limbert
An Iranian political cartoonist recently drew a demonstrator in the streets shouting, “Life imprisonment to America.” In other words, the July 14 nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1 (the JCPOA) has created a new reality and a different U.S.-Iranian relationship. Iranians will now need to soften or retire the old, reliable “Death to America” slogan that has echoed through Tehran’s streets for 36 years.
When asked why they continue to shout such a tired and empty slogan, Iranians seem to have three different answers. True believers, like the famous cheerleader “Mr. Bigmouth,” claim that they chant “Death to America” even in their dreams. The former true believer/hostage-taker turned liberal reformer, Mohsen Mirdamadi, once claimed that Iran should reject American earthquake relief since even the victims under the rubble were shouting “Death to America” with their last breath.
A second group claims that the slogan should not be taken seriously, because after so much time and repetition it has become empty and meaningless—a remnant of earlier, emotional times—and people now chant it only out of habit.
A third group rationalizes the slogan as a justifiable reaction to past American misdeeds such as shooting down the Iranian Airbus in 1988 and sponsoring the 1953 coup d’état that toppled Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. It shouldn’t, however, be taken literally.
Whatever the reality, the slogan persists, and its persistence has fueled debate in the U.S. Congress over the recent nuclear deal. Opponents of the deal, who would like to turn the American debate into a referendum on the evils or virtues of the Islamic Republic, ask rhetorically, “How can we make any agreement with a government that encourages its people to chant ‘Death to America’ in the streets? They obviously want to destroy us.”
Some Iranian officials understand the destructive power of the words. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), for example, knew that such language undercut his talk of a “dialogue of civilizations” and his expressions of respect for America’s history and culture. Khatami sought to end or limit the slogan, but he was unable to do so. It survived and returned in full strength under his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On October 26, 1979—nine days before the “Moslem Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” seized the American embassy—I accompanied a visiting State Department official to Friday prayers at Tehran University. We heard a sermon from Ayatollah Montazeri in which he barely mentioned the United States and made no mention of the deposed Shah, who had recently arrived in the U.S. for medical treatment.
After the sermon and the prayers there was a pep rally in which someone chanted slogans and the fist-waving crowd repeated them. Our visitor, whose Persian was not strong, asked me, “What should we do?”
I responded, “Think about it. There are two of us. There are over a million of them. You know the answer.”
The first slogans were innocuous enough: “The Kurds are our brothers!” and “Unity will bring us victory.”
Then I heard, “Marg bar seh mofsedin, Sadat o Karter o Begin!” (Death to the three corruptors, Sadat, Carter and Begin).
The visitor asked, “Isn’t there something in there about Carter?”
I told him, “Yes there is, and you know what to do. Carter will understand and God will forgive us.”
As we screamed for our president’s death, we were accompanied by our escort from the Foreign Ministry, who joined the chorus of denunciation with great enthusiasm. His face turned red and his eyes bulged as he shouted. A few minutes later the ceremony ended, and he asked us, “Please do me the honor of being my guest for lunch this afternoon.”
Nine days later, when the attackers overran the embassy and the local authorities did nothing, we realized that we should have taken the hostile slogans more seriously. For the next 14 months, along with bad food, we ingested a steady diet of “death to this” and “death to that.” One young man, who proudly told me that his English teacher had been a Peace Corps volunteer, spray-painted, “Death to the Carter” on a wall.
I finally suggested to our captors how they could save themselves a lot of effort and trouble. Instead of shouting “death to America,” “death to the Soviet Union,” “death to England,” “death to Israel,” and so on, they should combine all their energy into the slogan “death to the world.”
The response in their faces was, “Hmm. Makes sense. Why didn’t we think of that?”
Fires Banked or Out?
Has “death to America” become empty hyperbole today in Iran? Perhaps, and it should not prevent Washington and Tehran from doing now what then-Senator Obama first proposed in 2008: pursuing our goals through diplomacy, which means reaching imperfect agreements with partners we neither like nor trust.
It might be too soon to dismiss the slogan as completely meaningless. In October 1979, when the Carter administration admitted the Shah to the United States, it ignored the chants and underestimated the depth of simmering anti-American resentment that ambitious Iranian politicians were well prepared to use. Thirty-six years later, both Americans and Iranians are still dealing with the results of that mistake: the occupation of the U.S. mission, the triumph of mob rule in Tehran, and the collapse of U.S-Iranian relations for over three decades.
The old fires may have cooled, but they may not be completely out. Recent history and the persistence of anti-American rhetoric suggest that in this new reality we should proceed cautiously over ground that is unmapped and unfamiliar. We should not expect too much from a different American-Iranian relationship or push it too far.
Above all, we should avoid actions and words (particularly statements from amateur geneticists about the imperialism in Iranian DNA) that can feed old grievances and reignite the chants. Empty they might be. But in the wrong circumstances they still carry power.
Photo: On the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran courtesy of Örlygur Hnefill via Flickr.
John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.