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The Death of “Death to America!”

An Iranian couple walk past an anti-US mural painting outside the former United States' embassy in Tehran, 07 June 2005 (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian couple walk past an anti-US mural painting outside the former United States’ embassy in Tehran, 07 June 2005 (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Over the last few days, the discussion of re-establishing diplomatic relations—or at least improving the existing state of relations between Iran and the United States—has caught the attention of the press all around the world. It has sparked demonstrations of both support and opposition to the idea inside Iran.

While there has been practically no concrete change in relations between the two countries so far, many people in the media and the Iranian authorities have questioned, either jokingly or seriously, what will happen to the chant “Death to America” if the relationship does improve after more than three decades of mutual hostility. It is a chant that some analysts believe has become a fundamental part of the Islamic Republic’s ideology, and that the idea of abstaining from its use is a taboo in Iran.

In the first years after the revolution some officials, such as Ali Akbar Mohtashimpur, hailed “Death to America” as the foreign policy of Iran. And in a speech to the people and media of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “No one taught ‘Death to America’ to Iran—‘Death to America’ comes from the depths of each and every Iranian’s soul.”

As is always the case, the discussion of this issue started with ordinary people in the street. And as you might expect, it was these ordinary people who came up with the first jokes on the subject—including the suggestion that “Death to America” after Friday prayers should be replaced with “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Khamenei is our leader, watch out America!” The matter was then swiftly taken up by Iranian newspapers and has also prompted an official response from the authorities. Contrary to what you may expect, most officials who have addressed the issue in public have broadly welcomed the idea that the chant should be changed or not used.

One of the first officials to comment on the subject was the leader of Friday prayers in Esfahan. In a recent interview with the Qanun newspaper, Hojatoleslam Mohamed Taqi Rahbar was asked what the role of the phrase “Death to America” means, and if relations between Iran and the US seem to be improving.

He replied: “At one time, we had the phrase ‘Death to the Soviets.’ If relations with America become like those with Russia, and America shows good intentions, then this problem will be solved. There is no verse in the Qu’ran that says we should chant ‘Death to America’: just as we dealt with the problem with Russia and stopped chanting against them, we can deal with the problem with America.”

The Fararu website, among others, was quick to quote Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani on the topic. During a series of interviews that was later published as a book, Rafsanjani recalled that Ayatollah Khomeini had agreed (in private) that people should stop chanting “Death to America.”

He said: “I did not agree with the call for anyone’s death during public meetings. For example, in our meetings, ‘Death to Banisadr’ was a popular chant and I told people not to chant it after Friday prayers. There was ‘Death to Bazargan,’ and I told them not to say that. There was ‘Death to the Soviets,’ and now we no longer have that problem. As for ‘Death to America,’ I said the same thing. I personally am opposed to strong and offensive rhetoric—I do not find it constructive.”

When asked why he didn’t like the chants of this kind, he said: “There is a proverb from the Qu’ran about this. God told the early Muslims who were destroying the idols of non-Muslims, ‘You do not have the right to condemn these idols. Do not destroy them lest you cause those who worship them to speak ill of God and move further away from him.’”

Rafsanjani’s comments on the issue were so sensational that international newspapers such as London’s Guardian wrote articles about them. But beyond the comments in support or opposition to chanting “Death to America,” it seems that the continued existence of the chant is closely related to the difficult political conditions in Iran, and how far Iranian politicians across the political spectrum can push their agenda in regards to the more important issue of improving relations with the US.

But it is certain that even if relations do improve, many people in Iran will continue to chant the slogan after years of hearing it used, just as happened one recent Friday, when the crowds reacted to former culture minister Saffar Harandi’s plea to stop using the chant by chanting “Death to America” out of sheer force of habit.

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