Desmond Kavanagh

World News


Iranian Rhetoric: Making Sense of ‘Death to America’

Iran’s foreign policy has been imbued with anti-imperialist rhetoric since the 1979 revolution. This discourse is dominated by concepts of independence, national unity, and resistance. It is externally affected by conciliatory or aggressive behavior by the western powers, especially the United States. Sanctions, as a tool used by western powers to change the Islamic Republic’s behavior, appropriately fit within this context. They epitomize what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei often calls “the arrogance” of the Western powers. In the domestic context, the rhetoric that is used in reference to sanctions is one that highlights the resilience and the capabilities of the Iranian nation. Internationally, the rhetoric that is employed is meant to cement Iran’s image as an anti-imperialist power. In both the domestic and international environment, Iranian leaders denounce sanctions as ineffective.

It is in understanding this context and the function of anti-imperialist rhetoric that chants of “Death to America” start to become less puzzling. As the primary policy tool used by the United States in order to change Tehran’s behavior, the multilateral sanctions imposed against the Islamic Republic largely define the relationship between the two countries. They shape the conversation within Iran, and their effectiveness is largely hampered because of the salience of the discourse of anti-imperialism in Iran. The dialogue generated by sanctions cements Iran’s role as an anti-imperialist force, and reinforces notions of national unity against western aggression.

Iran as the Leader of Anti-Imperialism

Anti-imperialism and independence are central to Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric. The revolution through which Khomeini swept to power was built upon an unremitting anti-imperialist fervor that stressed its opposition to the Shah by emphasizing endogenous versus foreign-led development. In particular, the CIA-sponsored overthrow of popularly-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, set the conditions necessary for the popularity of anti-imperialist discourse in Iran. The resulting bitterness towards western intervention in Iranian affairs continues to influence Iran’s behavior. The style of western intervention in Iranian affairs may have changed since the revolution, but the substance has not. Post-revolutionary intervention is primarily through the imposition of severe economic sanctions, and the Iranian response today reflects the same revolutionary anti-imperialist discourse that brought Khomeini to power. The Islamic Republic has consciously positioned itself as an anti-imperialist entity, and its rhetoric of resistance against sanctions can be understood in this context.

Western sanctions against Iran have cemented the country’s position as an anti-imperialist force in the world. They’ve given credence and credibility to Iranian leaders’ revolutionary rhetoric on both a domestic and an international level.

This discourse is widely propagated by the Islamic Republic (through its popular PressTV programming which is beamed throughout the world, and through international forums such as the UN General Assembly) and is warmly received in many quarters of the world.

Meetings of international bodies are platforms for Iranian leaders to establish themselves and their country as an example for other countries who oppose western hegemony. In 2012, the summit of the Nonaligned Movement was hosted in Tehran with great fanfare. That Iran hosted over one hundred world leaders and foreign ministers was significant because it showcased the role that Iranian leaders imagine for their country. They see their country as the flag bearer for resistance against hegemonic western imperialism. For Iran’s leaders, taking up the mantle of anti-imperialism is evidence that their country is not “isolated” by the sanctions regime – that instead, it is strong and is revered as an example of resistance to western domination. The meeting of the Nonaligned Movement gave Tehran the chance to once again position itself as an anti-imperialist force.

The coupling of western “bullying” with the concept of resistance against sanctions fortifies for Iranian leaders their position as a global force for anti-imperialism. This position has been stressed in meetings of the UN General Assembly for almost twenty years. In 1987, then-president Khamenei delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly to condemn the U.S.-led “system of world domination.” Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani have all taken the stage at the UN in order to denounce western hegemony in one form or another. This discourse, articulated during the 1979 revolution against the Shah’s subservience to the United States, continues to the present day in relation to sanctions against Iran. Iranian leaders have employed anti-imperialist rhetoric and have effectively fit their struggle against sanctions as part of a larger global struggle against imperialism.

A pronounced dichotomy between the mostazafin (the oppressed) and the mostakberin (oppressors) is a lasting legacy of the 1979 revolution. For Iranian leaders, and in the eyes of many Iranians, the multilateral western sanctions against Iran are very much a part a continuation of western imperialist policies that maintain a system of domination of the mostazafin by the mostakberin. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, stressed that Iran must play a leadership role in “support[ing] all oppressed people around the world.” Iranian leaders therefore see themselves both as victims of western “arrogance,” and as leaders in the fight against it. Sanctions against the Islamic Republic have played a vital role in making this revolutionary rhetoric a central part of Iran’s image in the world. In order to fully understand this external image, it is important to examine the domestic structure that gives rise to it.

A Rhetorical Tit-for-Tat

The notion that the Islamic Republic relies on anti-Americanism for legitimacy is questionable, and this is affirmed by the fact that Iranian rhetoric is not reflexively anti-American. Nonaggressive rhetoric on the U.S. side has been returned by a conciliatory response on the Iranian side.

Discourse on the Iranian side is especially tampered when American rhetoric hints at reduction or removal of sanctions. For an examination of this, I discuss the responses of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei to President Obama’s YouTube address to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year (Nowruz), in 2009 and 2010. Obama’s 2009 Nowruz remarks were received very warmly in Tehran, and were reciprocated by an unprecedented change of tone from Supreme Leader Khamenei. Contrarily, Obama’s 2010 Nowruz message was marked by hostile rhetoric and received an unfriendly response from the Supreme Leader, whose address came just a few days after Obamas’ on both years (a fact that is not likely to be a mere coincidence.)

President Obama’s Norwuz remarks in 2009 were unprecedented in that they addressed not only the people of Iran, but also the “leaders of the Islamic Republic.” The simple fact that the title “Islamic Republic” was used is significant because it acknowledged the government in Tehran as the legitimate representative of the Iranian people – a serious step towards diplomacy. This change of tone was a significant shift from the previous President’s characterization of Iran as a part of an “axis of evil (Bush).” The content of Obama’s remarks were especially interesting because they emphasized his administration’s commitment to diplomacy, and they contained the promise that the process of diplomacy “will not be advanced by threats.” This prominent shift of tone and rhetoric from the Bush administration was received very warmly in Tehran, where Supreme Leader Khamenei delivered his own Nowruz message just days later, “We [the Islamic Republic] have no history with the new [U.S.] administration and president. We reserve our judgement. If you change, our conduct will change as well.” The leadership in Tehran took Obama’s message seriously, and signaled its own willingness to change if the United States changed its policies towards Iran.

Vastly different from his 2009 Nowruz remarks, President Obama was rather confrontational in his 2010 remarks on the occasion of the Persian New Year. Unlike the year before, Obama questioned the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, claiming that the regime in Iran bases its legitimacy on “hostility to America.” He also took a step back in offering an “extended hand” to the leaders of Iran, squarely passing blame for the failure of progress in diplomacy on Tehran. Instead of addressing both the people and leaders of Iran, he placed the two groups against each other, and blamed Iranian leaders for “turn[ing] their backs on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians.” The Iranian Supreme Leader framed this as a great insult to the Iranian nation, and his response was aggressive as a result. During his Nowruz address, he referenced what he viewed as patronizing behavior by Obama, “Our people resents such talk. It is unacceptable to talk to our people like this…stop your arrogant tone of speech and your condescending conduct. Stop your patronizing behavior. Don’t interfere in the affairs of other countries.” Khamenei’s address on both years was a direct response to Obama’s address, and depended heavily on the tone and content of what the American president had to say.

Prospects for peace

Iranian leaders have often responded to the rhetoric of American leaders, and this rhetoric has been marked by a cooperative tone in many instances. Iranian leaders have sometimes taken the initiative in engaging in friendly rhetoric towards the United States. President Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations,” and his rhetorical rapprochement towards the United States is a prime example of this. In a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, President Khatami expressed his admiration for “American civilization,” and deemed it “worthy of respect.” Instead of placing the Islamic Republic and the United States as diametric opposites, Khatami emphasizes “an affinity with the essence of American civilization,” because, he states, that “what [the Islamic Republic] seek[s] is what the founders of the American civilization were also pursuing four centuries ago.” He equates the pilgrims’ struggle for religious freedom with the Islamic nature of the 1979 revolution, and America’s struggle for independence from Britain with Iranians’ desire to be free from foreign intervention in their country’s affairs.

While Khatami made unprecedented conciliatory gestures and rhetoric towards the United States, he never abandoned the discourse of independence that was a hallmark of the 1979 revolution. After applauding America for being a “harbinger of independence,” he recounts the early days of the revolution, when the Iranian nation, tired of being “humiliated and [having] its fate decided by others…rose up, fought for independence, and emerged victorious.” He laments that American policies have strayed from the path intended by the country’s founding fathers. When asked about Iranians’ chants of “Death to America,” Khatami provides context and emphasizes that these chants are not aimed at either the American people or even the American government, but to the relationship that exists between the two countries.


The relationship between the two countries after the 1979 revolution is defined by the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States. These sanctions have poisoned the rhetoric on both sides. Sanctions reinforce the image in the eyes of Iran’s leaders and population that the West is inherently against Iran. This, in turn, feeds into the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and national unity that Khomeini’s revolution popularized. The coercive nature of the sanctions reifies Khomeini’s concept of an ongoing battle in which Iran leads the world’s Mostazafin against Mostakberin.

This concept was borne out of the legacy of colonialism and imperialism that marked the West’s role in the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East region. The West’s colonial past cannot be divorced from its current policies in the Middle East and North Africa. President Rouhani alluded to this during his speech to the UN General Assembly in 2014, he stated, “Today’s anti-Westernism is the offspring of yesterday’s colonialism. Today’s anti-Westernism is a reaction to yesterday’s racism.” These reactions manifest themselves clearly in the discourse that surrounds the sanctions that the U.S. and other Western powers have placed on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The words, “esteghlal,” and “azadi,” translated to “freedom,” and “independence,” are literally etched on the walls of the building of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. The rhetoric of the Iranian revolution carries on to this day, and the Iranian public continues to value independence from western powers as a pillar of its identity. Sanctions have served to popularize and strengthen the Islamic Republic’s notions of independence and anti-imperialism. Regarding Iranian popular opinion, Hassan Rouhani, in his 2014 speech to the UN General Assembly stated, “The people of Iran are devoted to certain principles and values at the apex of which are independence, development and national pride. Our people evaluate the behavior of their government based on the same criteria.”

The values of “Esteghlal” and “Azadi” continue to shape Iranian foreign policy, and sanctions are a threat to these driving forces in the Islamic Republic. Western leaders would be wise to understand that what leaders in Tehran say about Western policies in the region are largely a reflection of the opinion of their people, and that these opinions are more popular in the Middle East than Western policymakers would like to believe.