This past Monday marked the 34th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, leading to 52 Americans being held hostage for several months. Contrary to what many analysts thought, and despite the recent “thaw” and optimism considering rapprochement between Iranian authorities and American leaders, tens of thousands of Iranian demonstrators packed the streets outside of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran this year. Hundreds of thousands also demonstrated against Israel and the U.S. in other cities across the country.
The protests were unprecedented in their scale and scope, reported as the biggest anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rally in years. According to Iran’s official media, millions of people participated in these protests and demonstrations around the country, the largest turnout in years.
Additionally, the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have designated Nov. 4 as a “National Day against Global Arrogance.” While this week, tens of thousands of Iranians shouted “death to America” and “death to Israel.” The burning of American and Israeli flags permeated throughout the cities. Furthermore, effigies of American President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were held up high by protesters.
Many policy analysts and scholars pointed out that supporters of Rowhani and his campaign planned to prevent large-scale protests for the 34th anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy. The perception was that Tehran would largely discourage such demonstrations, since the diplomatic and political relationships between the United States and Iran seem to have improved through efforts from both sides (along with Iran’s recent aims to lure back Western oil investors to bolster its already increasing oil sales).
However, the major question that arises is, what is the real power dynamic in Tehran? If Iran’s currency, inflation, and economy are recovering because of the possible signs of improvement between Tehran and the U.S., then why were the largest protests and heavily choreographed demonstrations held this year, and why, just as Rowhani has extended his charm offensive to pursue diplomatic outreach to Washington?
First of all, it must be pointed out that the timing of these protests and demonstrations were very crucial. Last month saw the highest-level diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution when President Obama spoke with President Rowhani over the phone in New York at the U.N. General Assembly.
The issue of Iran-American rapprochement, and the possible diplomatic thaw between Tehran and Washington becomes controversial when we look into the domestic politics Iran.
Recently, one of the most powerful military and ideologically hardline institutions in Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) stated (http://news.yahoo.com/iran-guards-want-keep-death-america-chant-164840915.html) on the Persian Sepah News website (http://www.sepahnews.com/), that the slogan “Death to America” was a sign and manifestation of the Iranian people’s will, determination, and robust resistance against “the dominance of oppressive and untrustworthy America.” Hardliners also created several new anti-U.S. Islamic songs a few days before the protests, to be played next to the American embassy.
In addition, hardliners have strongly repelled any call to remove the “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” chants. They have verbally attacked figures such as former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and some supporters of Mousavi and Rowhani who called to possibly remove these slogans in order to rebuild the economy, remove economic sanctions that have endangered the hold on power of Iranian leaders, clerics, and Ayatollahs across Iran’s political spectrum. On the opening session of Iran’s parliament (or Majlis), all members of the Majlis joined the hardliners call, stating that they will proudly carry the slogan “Death to America.”
Deeply rooted antagonism and distrust in Iran’s political institutions
The antagonism towards the United States and Israel, as well as the Iranian leaders’ and their supporters’ rivalry against Washington and Tel Aviv, are deeply embedded in the power dynamic and in the domestic politics of Iran.
First of all, the main political institutions in Iran, such as the IRGC, the paramilitary Basij militia, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution (which owns and manages approximately 350 subsidiary and affiliate companies in fields including industry, transportation, commerce, agriculture, and tourism), the Supreme National Security Council, the army, and the Expediency Council, gain the major part of their legitimacy from considering United States and Israel as the “Great Satan.”
The antagonism towards America and Israel is a powerful political tool used to rule. For example, any domestic political or economic shortcomings are usually presented as the fault of the Americans and Israelis. Every day, Iran’s media blames the United States and Tel Aviv for most domestic and regional problems. Major forces of opposition to the government are suppressed, accused of being American or Israeli-linked conspirators. The major political institutions in Iran were founded through gaining legitimacy, and being capable of exerting their power, by using a scapegoat enemy— the “Great Satan.”
Finally, this unprecedented level of protest was a formidable sign from the powerful political institutions in Iran to those seeking mend relationships with the United States. Any fundamental change and rapprochement between the United States and Iran would strip away all the political leverage that major Iranian political and military institutions have. For hardliners, U.S.-Iran rapprochement will undermine their own domestic power, endangering their legitimacy, their rule, and suppression of the opposition.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.