The Debate

The End of “Death to America” Chants in Iran?

Iran’s iconic “Death to America” chant appears to be falling out of favor among the country’s powerbrokers.

The End of “Death to America” Chants in Iran?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Iran there is a growing push to eliminate the “Death to America” chant that has long been a staple of Friday Prayers and other public outings.

With the exception of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the streets of Tehran filled with mourners, Friday Prayers in major cities of Iran have featured a “Death to America” chant since the U.S. and Iran broke off diplomatic relations during the hostage crisis. These chants and Iranian political leaders referring to the U.S. as the “Great Satan” have often been used in the West to argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran is inexorably hostile to the U.S. and the West.

Perhaps cognizant of this, some are now pushing for the phrase to be eliminated from Iranian public discourse.

Most notably, early last week former President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani posted a note to his website claiming the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution, had agreed with Rafsanjani that the use of the “Death to” chants, including “Death to America,” should be discontinued. Since Khomeini’s death in 1989, Rafsanjani, who was a close confidante of Khomeini, has often recalled private conversations between the two about controversial topics such as who should succeed Khomeini.

Rafsanjani’s website posting was widely covered in the Iranian press last week. Many outlets noted that no one besides Rafsanjani had heard Khomeini denounce the death to chants. However, not long before Rafsanjani’s posting, an undated quote from Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, Esfahan's Friday Prayer leader and a former parliamentarian, surfaced in which Rahbar reportedly suggested that the use of the “Death of America” chant shouldn’t have to continue forever.

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Then, immediately following Rafsanjani’s statement, an op-ed from a popular newspaper editor appeared in which the author, Mehrdad Khadir raised the possibility that the thawing of ties between Iran and the U.S. could spell the end to the chant. In the article, Khadir discusses the lineage of the “Death to America” chant, noting that it was not a founding revolutionary slogan but only appeared after tensions with the U.S. deteriorated in the months afterward. Initially, the chant was only “Death to Arrogance.”

Khadir goes on to note that other individuals (such as exiled Iranian politicians and Saddam Hussein) and countries (such as the Soviet Union and China) had previously been included alongside the U.S. in the “Death to” chant, only to be eliminated from the chant after tensions thawed (or the individuals were killed). Khadir hypothesizes that an improvement in ties with the U.S. could lead the chant to return to the original, ambiguous Death to Arrogance chant (apparently, not calling for the “Death to” anything at a Friday Prayer is a step too far.)

Last Friday it initially appeared that hardliners in the regime intended to push back against the calls for the cessation of “Death to America” chants.

Specifically, Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, who also serves as an advisor to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), embraced the chant when he was introducing the Friday Prayer leader in Tehran. According to Iranian media reports, as reported by AEI’s Iran Tracker, after Harandi questioned Rouhani’s outreach to the U.S. during the UN General Assembly week in New York, attendees to the Friday Prayer began chanting Death to America. Harandi reportedly responded to these chants by saying:

“This anger is due to the past memories of these people, and this can be our message. Of course the chant of Death to America has been and will be reinforced over time, because the people have daggers of Americans in the chest, back, and throat of their children. These past memories are added to their treacherous designs [hidden] behind their diplomatic front. Behind the apparent friendliness, their hostility continues.”

Interestingly, Harandi quickly denounced these initial media reports, claiming that they had reported the facts incorrectly. According to Harandi’s account, after the spontaneous chants of “Death to America” began, “I said I call on you to stop chanting,” but noted that the reason people were chanting this was because they are angry at America’s actions today.

Harandi then continued:

“These days our people have hoped for the opening of a path under the title of ‘heroic flexibility’ that leads to the realization of their demands…. We have certainly been waiting. On November 4th of this year [the anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis] , the people’s chants will resonate more loudly than the past, and this will be completely affected by the conduct that Americans may show in the coming days during the progress of negotiations.”

Thus, Harandi is suggesting that if America’s stance toward Iran changes, he does not expect these chants to continue (although he doesn’t expect America’s position toward Iran to change.)

More importantly, the fact that Harandi felt compelled to quickly denounce the reports suggest that the powers that be in Iran may be contemplating an end to the “Death to America” chant.