Preparing for Iran’s annual rally to mark the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, Mostafa Afzalzadeh said he wouldn’t let recent overtures between the countries stop him from attending and chanting “Death to America.”
“These games won’t fool people,” said Afzalzadeh, a documentary filmmaker, in a phone interview last week. The comment found an echo in Washington, where Senator Mark Kirk was among lawmakers saying sanctions on Iran need to be tightened regardless of talks due to resume in Geneva tomorrow, and the administration’s pleas to give them time. “It just seems a long rope-a-dope,” said Kirk, an Illinois Republican.
Since Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani visited New York in September, the two countries have held their highest-level contacts in decades and welcomed a new seriousness in nuclear diplomacy. Optimism over a thaw helped push oil to a five-month low. Yet in both countries there’s opposition to the détente that has the potential to derail it.
That was especially visible in Tehran on Nov. 4 at one of the biggest anti-U.S. protests in years, where demonstrators burned American flags. In the buildup, posters appeared around the capital showing a U.S. negotiator holding a shotgun under the table, or a Doberman on a leash.
Leaders on both sides are seeking to win over or rein in the skeptics. President Barack Obama sent top officials to Congress on Oct. 31 to persuade lawmakers such as Kirk that it’s the wrong time to push for tougher sanctions. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Nov. 3 that Iran’s negotiators, criticized in conservative media for being too soft, “have a mission and they are carrying it out.” The anti-U.S. posters in Tehran were pulled down before the rally.
Khamenei’s seal of approval means few in Iran openly oppose dialogue with the U.S. or the nuclear talks. Even participants in the Nov. 4 rally like Mehdi Meshkini, a 27-year-old volunteer with the hardline Basij militia, say they’re in favor.
In a phone interview, Meshkini said Iran’s diplomacy is part of a “framework of resistance,” and the chant of “Down with the U.S.” at the protest is “a peace message, not a war message,” targeting American interventions in the Middle East.
The displays of anti-Americanism can derail diplomacy, offering ammunition to those on the other side who also don’t want it to work, said Stephen Kinzer, author of “All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,” a study of ties between the countries that focuses on the U.S.- backed coup that toppled Iran’s elected leader in the 1950s.
‘Bit More Subtle’
Images of burning flags and chanting crowds “will be portrayed as proof that the overture Iran is making is only cosmetic and not serious,” and that’s what the protest organizers want, Kinzer said. “They will encourage the ‘death to Iran’ chanters in the U.S., who are a little bit more subtle in their chanting, but are doing all they can to make sure that reconciliation does not happen.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s among those warning against any rapprochement with Iran, cited the anti-American chants at the Nov. 4 rally in a Twitter message today, saying they showed “the true face of this regime.”
Rouhani took office in August after winning election on a pledge to ease Iran’s international isolation and roll back sanctions that have squeezed its economy, pushing oil output to the lowest since 1990. The curbs were imposed by the U.S. and allies to rein in a nuclear program they say has military intent. Israel and the U.S. have threatened to use force to stop Iran getting atomic weapons if diplomacy doesn’t work. Iran says its program is for civilian purposes.
While four in five Iranians believe sanctions have hurt their livelihoods, more than half say Iran should maintain its nuclear program in the face of international pressure, according to a Gallup poll published today. That highlights the role of Iranian nationalism in the dispute, Gallup said.
The talks that got under way in Geneva last month were described as substantial by Western diplomats. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told France24 television yesterday that this week’s session may result in an accord.
Memories of the 1979 hostage-taking stir emotions on both sides yet they won’t affect the calculations of leaders, said Ervand Abrahamian, professor of Iranian and Middle Eastern history and politics at Baruch College in New York.
“Both Obama and Rouhani are enough of realists to know they’re not going to get into discussions about bad feelings of the past,” he said. They’re focused instead on the nuclear issue because “it can result in another war in the Middle East, and that’s not something either Iran or the U.S. wants.”
‘Down With You’
The Nov. 4 rally wasn’t the only recent expression of Iranian mistrust. Kayhan newspaper, seen as close to Khamenei, pointed to the scandal over U.S. spying as an illustration of American deceit. The U.S. “doesn’t even have pity on its closest allies,” it said in an Oct. 30 editorial. Last month, authorities announced a competition for artwork illustrating American imperialism and duplicity, with prizes of more than 2,500 euros ($3,370).
Friday prayer leaders in Iranian cities on Nov. 1 urged negotiators to take a tough line. “Experience has shown that America doesn’t give anything away through negotiations,” Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told worshippers in Tehran, according to Shargh newspaper.
Meshkini, the student and Basij volunteer, complained that the American approach is two-faced. “In the morning, we hear officials in the White House say ‘we’re into negotiations,’ and at night they slap appalling sanctions on us,” he said.
Asked about a similar contrast in Iran, where officially organized anti-American protests coexist with promises of a diplomatic breakthrough, he saw no problem.
“The presence in the street is a type of diplomacy,” he said. “The foreign minister can tell them: our people are saying ‘down with you,’ so change your policies. Our chants are backing our negotiating team. I don’t see a contradiction.”