Death to America Forever, or Just Until a Deal?
Death to America Forever, or Just Until a Deal?
By Venus Omidvar
“This year’s 'National Day Against Global Arrogance' ceremony on November 4 will be held with more passion than previous years. The ceremony is the day that symbolizes protests against colonial and arrogance hegemony of America, the Great Satan." This statement was a part of Asghar Abbkhezr’s stance--the position of deputy head of Iran’s Islamic Propagation Coordination Council about a slogan that is as old as the Islamic Revolution, a slogan that has been alive for many years in all forms of official gatherings and protests.
For those of us who are as old as the Islamic Republic, uttering "Death to America" has been something rather normal and ordinary. We were exposed to it during our school and university years, and whenever we were forced to participate in a variety of events, from Student Day to University Day, and in any other rallies that were held throughout our school years, we heard this slogan over and over again. We saw “Death to American” written on the walls of most schools, buildings, on most streets. For my generation, the generation of the revolution, the slogan is part of the backdrop of contemporary life. So what has happened for the slogan, so long taken for granted, to become suddenly discussed in the news and media? Why do some suddenly support its elimination from the country’s political discourse, and why are there those who consider the slogan to be the Islamic Republic’s frontline of resistance and defy its elimination?
Those who publish their opinions in conservative newspapers such as Resalat, Kayhan, and Javan call those who wish to retire the slogan “compromisers,” and any time and for any reason they gather together these days, they repeat the slogan with a particular intensity and emphasis. At the same time, the people who reflect their opinions in reformist newspapers such as Etemad, Bahar, and Sharq call their opponents ossified extremists who are preventing the country from progressing.
Opposition Emerges, or We Can Drop it After All
Sensitivity over the “Death to America” slogan began when on September 30 when the official website of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, published an article called “Hashemi’s Untold Accounts in Serahat Nameh; Imam Supported Elimination of the Slogan ‘Death to America’”, three days after the historical telephone conversation between the two presidents of Iran and the United States, the first of its kind in 35 years. Hashemi’s memoirs of 1993-1994 will be published in the new book “Serahat Nameh” [Candid Notes], as reported on his website, and will include a section on Ayatollah Khomeini’s agreement to the elimination of the slogan “Death to America.”
In a part of these memoirs, Rafsanjani says: “… earlier this afternoon, Mr. Esmail Fadaei, Arak’s representative, came over. He complained about Arak’s Friday Prayer Imam’s treatment of him. Shushtar’s representative [Imam Mousavi] also came over and suggested the elimination of the ‘Death to America and Soviet Union’ slogans. I said, we have made a decision in principle; Imam [Khomeini] has also agreed, but we are waiting for the opportunity.”
What Would Khomeini Have Done?
The day after the publication of the article, opposition to Rafsanjani's statements began. Those opposed to the elimination of the slogan, mostly fundamentalists who consider “Death to America” to be one of the consolidated principles of the Islamic Revolution, refer to the slogan as the Iranians’ code of resistance. In an editorial piece titled “No U-turn”, published in Kayhan newspaper, the conservative newspaper’s editor-in-Chief called the statements made by the head of the Expediency Council a distortion of the explicit and repeated views of Ayatollah Khomeini.
As evidence, he presented this sentence by Ayatollah Khomeini: “I wish that God would grant us the power to ring the bells of Death to America and Soviet Union not only from the shrine of the Muslims, but also from the churches of the world.”
In his article, pointing to a letter Rafsajnani wrote to Ayatollah Khomeini about the need to establish relations with the U.S. and about Khomeini’s views on the subject, Shariatmadari wrote,“Mr. Rafsanjni has previously registered in his political records other samples of distortions of the views of His Holiness Imam (Almighty Allah’s Merci).”
“The ‘Death to America’ slogan has been chanted numerous times before, during protests by millions of people, even in the presence of Imam [himself], and no sign of willingness by Imam for its elimination has ever been seen or heard. On the contrary, Imam spoke many times of the people’s hatred of the U.S. policies, not only before the Revolution but also after the Revolution!” he added. Shariatmadari also accused the official of the Institute for Compilation and Publication of the Works by Ayatollah Khomeini of keeping silent against the distorted memories of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Real Issue: Relations with America
Taking the same stance, Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, member of parliament from Mashhad, also said,"The Iranian nation, with its religious knowledge, will continue to chant the ‘Death to America’ slogan as well as the other slogans like it which are a part of the Iranian nation’s religious, revolutionary, and cultural mission. The movement and the axis whose ideas are embodied inside the country by Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani want to do away with the ideals of the Revolution and seek to achieve their goals by their acts, including taking the people away from their revolutionary slogans. Hashemi wants to benefit to the max from the existence of the Eleventh Administration [Rouhani’s cabinet] for advancement of his own goals.”
Karimi Ghoddousi said the elimination of the slogan is brought up by those who favor a compromise with the U.S. “The people of Iran will eliminate from the country’s political scene those individuals who are in favor of eliminating the ‘Death to America’ slogan, so the grassroots ‘Death to America’ slogan is not going to be eliminated by a few opportunists."
Emphasizing that the “Death to America” is the slogan of the Iranian people and not necessarily an administration or state slogan, Abbas Ali Mansouri Arani, another MP, said, “The ‘Death to America’ slogan is from heart the Iranian people’s revolutionary culture, and because of this, eliminating this revolutionary slogan would only be possible when the U.S. expresses regret in practice for its dishonorable and colonial conducts, and not just by diplomatic propagandist acts trying to appease the global system.”
Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s temporary Friday Imam, also brought up this question in confrontation with those who are in favor of eliminating the “Death to America” slogan at his October 11 sermon, “Has the U.S. become a smaller Satan in the last 35 years, or is it that its mischief has increased 35-fold? The Americans, and those who wish to depart from this slogan of the people, should know that this slogan is a symbol of resistance for the Iranian nation, and as long as the U.S. mischief exists, so would also this great slogan remain amongst the people."
Many believe however, that continuing the country’s policy of tension reduction, the ‘Death to America’ slogan must be eliminated. With Hassan Rouhani’s “Wisdom and Hope” administration’s coming to power, many hope he would help reduce tension and improve relations with the U.S. and solve Iran’s economic and political problems, and favor of the elimination of the slogan from the political discourse.
Death to the USSR Was Retired, Why Not This?
They assert that as once the “Death to Soviet Union” slogan was a prevalent one in gatherings and rallies in Iran, yet following relations improvements between the two countries that slogan was eliminated from the political rhetoric, and so should today “Death to America” slogan be dispensed with, since the new government of Hassan Rouhani has became active on the global stage with an aim to reconcile with the West and improve relations with the U.S.
Rafsanjani, whose memoirs started the debate between the two opposing camps, said in reaction to the opponents, “I am inherently opposed to harsh words and swearing and do not consider them to be of any good,” adding, “Basically, our society has always been a few steps behind knowledge and science because of being a traditional society and due to its being held captive by the rigid believers and by the fanatics. But of course Islam is to the contrary." Referring to a verse from Quran Rafsanjani considers “Death to America” to be opposed to the Quran, “’Do not curse the idols, lest they blaspheme and curse God,’ and this will cause more confusion for them,” he said.
While most Friday Imams have vowed to keep up the slogan in their recent sermons, Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, Esfahan’s Friday Imam, said: “No Quran verse has been revealed to us [telling us] to shout ‘Death to America’ all the time. Just like the days when we confronted the Russians and then stopped the slogan against them, we can also takeo the same approach with the Americans.”
Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom Seminary professor, said the decision should be made contingent on how the United States deals with Iran. “The kind of cooperation the U.S. maintains with us shall determine whether the slogan should remain or not,” Gharavian said.
Who's Slogan Anyway?
Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University professor who supports excising the slogan from the country’s political discourse, also said, “I believe the majority of Iranian people not only are tired of the ‘Death to America’ slogan but also they are tired of the permanent tensions between Iran and the world." In an interview with Bahar, Zibakalam added, “Insisting on this animosity, the bulk of which is illusory, has caused Iran to fall behind countries like Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, and even Malaysia by many years.”
“This slogan belongs more to extremist circles than the people. Therefore the Rouhani cabinet cannot play the ‘presence of opposition in the country’ card in negotiations with the U.S. The government must preserve the rights of those who want to say ‘Death to America,’ but it must also enforce the will of the majority,” said Sadegh Zibakalam.
Hamid Ansari, deputy head of the Institute for Compilation and Publication of the Works by Ayatollah Khomeini, validated the accuracy of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs and added this issue was only emphasized by Ayatollah Khomeini during that same period. He also said Ayatollah Khomeini was for the elimination of both "Death to America "and "Death to Soviet Union” slogans from the government media, radio and television, but he did not refer to the elimination of it from the political discourse in demonstrations and rallies. Ansari described Hashemi to be one of the closest, most trusted people by Ayatollah Khomeini, and considering Hashemi’s importance and also his position in the system, the Parliament, and the Supreme Defense Council, regarded him in and of himself as an important and trustworthy evidence for the events that occurred during that time.
The History of “Death to America”
Historical review of rallies and demonstrations in the early part of the Islamic Revolution movement does not shows "Death to America" to be chanted by the revolutionaries anywhere. In reality the root of this slogan goes back to 1979 following the departure of the Shah from Iran. At that time some of the political factions in the country ended their announcements with the phrase "Death to world imperialism led by America.” According to Mehr Magazine, gradually after November 4, 1979, after the seize of the American Embassy by student followers of the Imam, which happened after the Shah was admitted into the U.S for medical treatment by using an alias, the “Death to America” slogan entered the country’s political discourse and became prevalent in demonstrations and protests. During the 35-year life of the Iranian revolution this slogan was perhaps silenced only once, for four months following the events of September 11, 2001. But, after that period and following the speech by George W. Bush in which he called Iran a part of the axis of evil, once again “Death to America” rolled on tongues.
Therefore it could be said that the “Death to America” slogan was not a revolutionary slogan but more a function of the relationship between Iran and the U.S.
Arrival of November 4 and Continuation of Reactions
With November 4 looming ahead, extremists’ reactions have been becoming harsher and “Death to America” has gained more emphasis at every event and speech. IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said during a joint morning parade with the Basij forces from North Khorasan Province on October 12 that, “The people will not be tricked by some individuals who are creating an atmosphere for the removal of the ‘Death to America’ slogan.”
In a related statement, Masoud Jazayeri, the Deputy Chief of Basij Affairs and Defense Culture for the Armed Forces announced that grassroots headquarters will be established for holding the November 4 ceremonies for the National Day Against Global Arrogance. “In accordance with the promotion of the defensive strength of the country and the promotion of the public insight about the subject of identifying enemies, grassroots headquarters of the November 4 ceremonies and the day of ‘death to America and international Zionism’ will be established, and those shouts will resonate throughout the Iranian cities and villages,” he said.
Less than three weeks before November 4, and one day before Eid-e Qurban [Eid al-Edha or Feast of the Sacrifice], a few people disrupted Hashemi Rafsanjani’s speech during the commemoration of the death of Ayatollah Ashrafi Esfehani in Kermanshah by repeatedly shouting “Death to America,” to the point that he could not continue his speech. Also, during the Eid-e Qurban prayer in Tehran a few of the participating prayers from Tehran repeated this slogan several times. In Mashhad, Ayatollah Alam al-Hoda, the city’s Friday Prayer Imam, called the claim that Ayatollah Khomeini agreed to the elimination of the ‘Death to America’ slogan to be a total lie, and he called the supporters of the elimination of the slogan as “America’s lackeys and servants.”
These reactions and attacks against Rafsanjani continued to the point that in an interview with the Islamic Republic Newspaper he said that the administrators of his website had published the memoirs about the elimination of the slogan ‘Death to America’ without first coordinating with him. Despite this, the memoirs and the articles about it are still accessible on his website and nothing has been done to remove it.
So far none of the other senior officials of the government, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president, and the speaker of the Parliament have taken a position in this regard. On the contrary, the diplomatic machinery of Rouhani’s administration and the reformist media are trying to open a window to the Western countries, especially the U.S., in order to end 35 years of animosity and hostility in return for negotiation with the Western countries over the nuclear issues.
We must wait now and see whether, as Nejah Mohammad Ali said in Al-Mashreq, is Rafsanjani at the age of 80 still effective in the political environment of Iran and the world, and is he still capable of successfully accomplishing the mission of eliminating "Death to America" from street gatherings and rallies and from the Iranian political discourse, as he once eliminated “Death to Soviet Union”, "Death to Bani Sadr", "Death to Bazargan”, and "Death to the unveiled” slogans?