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Anti-Americanism: What’s Iran’s beef with the United States

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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

In modern history, seldom has adversary continued to exist between two nations for so long. The Iranian clerics seem to project antagonism toward the United States for four decades but deep in their society, the Iranian people have shown the opposite by chanting “Our enemy is here, they lie when claiming it’s America.” In fact, anti-Americanism is nothing but a tool in the dirty politics that is geared towards Tehran rather than Washington.

The slogan “Death to America” is practically as old as the Islamic Republic itself. Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s previous supreme leader who was a master of deceit and deterrence, knew too well how to exploit the public frustration against the Shah and his American backers to his own benefit. Once hardliners, allegedly “students of Imam’s political line” stormed the U.S. embassy on November 4, 1979. Mehdi Bazargan, long-time pro-democracy activist and head of Iran’s interim government resigned. With the ‘liberals’ gone, Khomeini purified his rule at last.

Remembering those days, an Iranian official has famously said: “The ‘death to America’ slogan has served the Islamic Republic more than the Ministry of Intelligence, when it comes to eliminating the anti-revolutionary elements.”  

In the early 1980s, the regime practically cracked down on all progressives like the People’s Mojahedin and Marxist groups whether for being an agent of the United States or the Soviet Union. Members of IRGC were covering dissidents’ bodies in American flags before burial. 

Khomeini’s point was never about principles. He knew how to play politics with the ‘Great Satan.’ He released the U.S. hostages just minutes after American President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in 1981. Some political observers have argued that the Iran hostage crisis played a major role in President Jimmy Carter’s defeat. Khomeini also understood how to negotiate directly with U.S. envoy Robert McFarlane in 1985. During the secret talks that were later known as the Iran Contra affair, the supreme leader gave up American hostages held in Lebanon for Israeli weaponry, with the Republican administration acting as an intermediary. 

Since Ali Khamenei became the new Supreme Leader in Iran, he enthusiastically inherited anti-Americanism as a pillar of his reign to mobilize and motivate his base. On farsi.khamenei.ir Khamenei’s office has documented every major incident where the supreme leader has spoken against the United States. 

On February 8, 2019, when meeting with Iranian Air Force personnel, Khamenei said: “Death to America means death to Trump and John Bolton and Pompeo! Death to these means death to the leaders; we have nothing against the American people.” 

On May 9, 2019, former U.S. President Donald Trump accused former Secretary of State John Kerry of violating the ‘Logan Act’ and talking to the Iranians, ‘telling them what to do,’ Rumors were circulating across the Iranian political spectrum that the former Democratic official was asking Iranian FM Javad Zarif to stay in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and ensured him that Trump would be gone in 2020 U.S. presidential election. Whether the two incidents are connected somehow remains a mystery but whether Khamenei felt ensured before he named the former U.S. president by name is certain. 

On November 2, 2016, barely a week before the U.S. election took place, Khamenei told students in the paramilitary Basij: “One day, the slogan of ‘death to America’ was solely Iran’s. Today, in the West Asian region, in East Asia, in Europe, in Latin America and in Africa, these nations who rise up are chanting slogans against the United States.”

Vis-à-vis the West in general and the U.S. in particular, Iran has always tried to create its “power components.” Even today, when trying to push for sanctions relief, Tehran keeps the Vienna talks in limbo while pacing its uranium enrichment as well as encouraging hostile proxy groups in the Middle East to attack Western allies and U.S. interests. The anti-American rhetoric has always served as a warning for U.S. administrations that Iran is hands-off. But that’s not the whole story.

Tyrannical regimes need enemies to justify intimidation and violence. Lacking public support and failing to lead a nation towards economic and sociopolitical prosperity, Tehran has sought to secure its survival by mobilizing a force of low morale and civilized upbringing, the thug class. Just as inside Iran, the regime is trying to attract impoverished masses in the targeted countries to influence their mindset and provide the justification and a nation to blame for all their grievances. While convincing them to fight against America is a holy cause, the regime pays their wages and funds their families when they’re ‘martyred in a sacred cause.’

The regime has also used Lebanese and Iraqi militiamen to gun down Iranian protesters during the nationwide uprisings since 2009. Today, even though Iranians are suffering from water shortages, power outages, unemployment, and high inflation, the regime can’t let go of flotillas that supply fuel to Hezbollah in Lebanon or sending generous gifts to the Taliban in Herat. 

Through its proxy groups, the Iranian regime has killed more Americans than any other nation after WWII, but it has never risked conventional warfare. Iranian-style warmongering is about scaring off war, not fighting it. Just as the nuclear bomb serves as deterrence, rather than for being launched. 

After what the U.S. has endured in Afghanistan and Iraq, the supreme leader assumes that the U.S has no interest in another invasion. Hence, the threat he faces is not from abroad but, rather, from within. Death to America is not for American ears, it is for those who are supposed to preserve his regime. This wisdom can help Washington to strike at Tehran’s Achilles heel. While hardliners shout, “death to America” and aim at the White House and the Capitol, Americans can say ‘Viva to the Iranian people’ and aim the help on the streets of Tehran and all across Iran. 

Hamid Enayat

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