Why Iran still won’t abandon ‘Death to America’

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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Improving Western-Iran diplomatic relationships, the nuclear agreement, as well as new venues of direct diplomatic communications between Iranian and U.S. high-level officials, have all raised expectations that perhaps the two countries considered enemies for so long have put their mistrust aside and have embarked on a new path.

But these expectations were somewhat shattered when this week an overwhelming majority of Iranian lawmakers and parliamentarians stated that the Islamic Republic will not abandon the inflammatory slogan of “Death to America”.


In a joint statement released by Iran’s state news agency IRNA, 192 members of Iran’s 290-seat parliament declared: “The martyr-nurturing nation of Iran is not at all prepared to abandon the slogan of ‘Death to America’ under the pretext of a nuclear agreement.”

This means that “Death to America” will continue on Friday prayers, protests, or special holidays such as November 4 – the anniversary of the hostage crisis of 1977, a direct siege on the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

The Supreme Leader, cannot, and will not, declare overnight that the slogan “Death to America” should be abandoned.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The Iranian parliament's move is a manifestation of the domestic political struggle, as well as Iran’s inflexible regional policies. After the nuclear deal, the hardliners appear to be on a roll as they send signals to the moderates that the hardliners are in charge, that the nuclear deal does not mean total rapprochement with the “Great Satan,” and that the moderates should watch their steps as they crossed a line when dealing with the U.S.

The toning-down of the slogan

However, it is crucial to point out that that unlike in the past, Iranian officials including the Supreme Leader took their time to tone down and provide an explanation of the true meaning of “Death to America.”

For example, this week, according to The Associated Press, Ayatollah Khamenei spoke to Iranian students in Tehran about the slogan.

He said: “Your 'Death to America’ slogan and the cries by the Iranian nation, have strong logical support behind them … Obviously by 'Death to America,’ we don't mean death to the American people. The American nation is just like the rest of the nations. It ... means death to U.S. policies and its arrogance."

In another message he reitterated that “The slogan ‘death to America’ is backed by reason and wisdom; and it goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation.”

Although Iran continues to promote the slogan, its leaders' efforts to minimize the negative connotations of it are a sign of gradually improving ties between Tehran and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry previously asked Iranian leaders to totally abandon the slogan. The question is why the Islamic Republic does not cut out the slogan altogether? Won’t abandoning it decrease tensions between Washington and Tehran and subsequently lead to improving Iran’s legitimacy on the global stage?

Iran’s indispensible dual identity

Governments, which normally emerge after revolutions, and adopt revolutionary ideals to define their socio-political character and their identity, will often find it almost impossible to subsequently unshackle themselves from revolutionary principles and alter their identity.

This means that changing the system can not be accomplished through the will of one individual, even if that person is the Supreme Leader. The legitimacy of the system will continue to rely on those revolutionary ideals.

After the 1979 revolution, two key elements characterized the nature and identity of the Islamic Republic: anti-Western values (particularly opposing U.S. policies in the Middle East) and the religious backbone of its society (Shiite theology).

The religious character of the Iranian government was formulated and spread through seminaries, changing school curriculums and imposing religious laws with the constitution.

The anti-Western character of the Iranian government was fossilized and strengthened through two elements: Iran’s regional policies and its hard-line institutions (such as the military, Basij, Sepah, Quds force, intelligence, judiciary, among others). Tehran’s regional policies of supporting Shiite proxies and allying itself with U.S. rivals, pushed it towards scuttling American (and Israeli) policies in the region.

The government created several hard-line institutions (including Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps) and invested a good chunk of its budget and oil revenue in these institutions. Over the past 30 years, the character of these institutions and their political and economic monopoly was formed based on the anti-Western values of the revolution.

These hard-line institutions ensure the ironclad power of the Supreme Leader and he, in return, ensures their monopoly over social, political and economic spectrums.

The Supreme Leader, cannot, and will not, declare overnight that the slogan “Death to America” should be abandoned, because this will shatter the foundations of his social and political base (made up of the judiciary and hardline clerics, among others) as well as the military institutions which protect him. In addition, the Islamic Republic has conveniently used its hostility towards the U.S. as a powerful strategy and tactic to repress domestic oppositions or place blame on Washington for domestic economic mismanagements. Nevertheless, “Death to America” does not necessarily mean that Iranian-American ties are not improving. Despite the slogan, Washington and Tehran are finding more shared interests to cooperate together on.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: [email protected], or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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