Iranian President Rouhani: Don’t Take “Death to America” Personally


Flickr Kamyar Adl

The burgeoning relationship — still very far from amicable — between America and Iran has been more than a little bumpy the last few months. The agreement that suspends Iran’s nuclear program while ending sanctions has been a tough sell in both countries where wariness of the other has long been the well-vocalized norm. In America, the deal was nearly undone by a vehemently suspicious Republican party with a little bipartisan distrust from a minority of Democrats. In Iran, none other than the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has expressed doubts while unequivocally stating this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

One of the biggest sticking points between the nations comes down to oratory. Just as Russia has transitioned back to Cold War rhetoric in the past year, so too the flourishes of speech between Iran and America have been hard to kill or forget. The old “axis of evil” comment from former president George W. Bush still has adherents in America and offended parties in Iran. And from Iran, “death to America” chants have been regular viewing fare on the news for decades.

But now, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani is attempting to undercut the language through a more moderate interpretation.

“This slogan that is chanted is not a slogan against the American people,” Rouhani told CBS in a recent interview. “Our people respect the American people.”

Instead, Rouhani claims, the contentious phrase is meant to be statement of disapproval of American foreign policy.

Many will find that nuance hard to parse, others hard to believe at all. But Rouhani’s argument is not just political hermeneutics. While much of the evidence is anecdotal, there is a distinct positive view of America among many in the Islamic Republic, and an undeniable hunger for US products and the US lifestyle. A significant minority, especially among the wealthy and educated classes, has expressed the desire to heal old wounds and get the relationship back on track. While the propaganda and the language can be violently anti-American, most Iranians seem far more reflective and, well, nuanced.

Accepting that complexity may help both sides build on the nuclear agreement to forge some sort of working relationship. They have a number of priorities in common, including a desire to eradicate ISIS. It may not be so easy to ignore the “Death to America” shouts of some in Tehran, but America may learn in time to hear the softer voices of moderate approval. If Iran can hear the same on their end, there’s hope the rocky relationship may begin to mend.

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