“A verse from the Quran did not come down such that we should forever chant ‘Death to America.’ Just like we used to confront the Russians in those days, and we no longer chant against them, it could be the same for the Americans,” wrote Mehrdad Khadir in Asre Iran, echoing Esfahan Prayer Leader Hojat ol eslam Mohammad Taghi Rahbar in an undated quote.
The author set out to re-examine this chant in an article headlined “What Will Happen to ‘Death to America’ Chant: A study of the history, past and future of a chant.”
Khadir explains that the “unprecedented phone conversation” between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama has concerned Principlists, who consider “Death to America” one of the “fixed principles of the Islamic Republic’s diplomacy.” Hard-line Iranian media have pointed out that even Western media noted that Rouhani spoke in favor of this chant in 1995.
Khadir writes that while anti-American chants were popular during the revolution, in particular against Jimmy Carter, the American president at the time, there were also chants against China and the Soviet Union. However, when the Shah of Iran fled Iran and eventually went to the US, the chant “Death to the World Imperialists at the Command of America” eventually evolved through a series of diplomatic crises into “Death to America.”
When in June 1979, the US Senate spoke against the executions of former officials of the shah’s government, many top Iranian officials took a very strong position against the United States. On Iran’s Quds Day, many top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke harshly against the United States. Ayatollah Khamenei, who was then hojat ol eslam (authority on Islam), used the term “arrogance” instead of “imperialists,” which carried a religious meaning rather than a geographic one. Though this wasn’t the first time “arrogance” was used, it became much more popular after this event.
When the Shah finally arrived in the United States in October of 1979 to receive medical treatment, the “political atmosphere became extremely anti-American” writes Khadir. State-run newspapers such as Kayhan and the Islamic Republic took a harsh tone and the students occupied the American Embassy chanting “Khomeini battles, Carter shakes.” It was from this moment that the chant “Death to America” became popular, according to Khadir.
Khadir continued, “With the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the chant ‘Death to the Soviet Union’ was added and from this time, the list of ‘Death to’ at the end of the Friday prayer chants was: America, Soviet Union, Israel and later the hypocrites [MEK] and Saddam [Hussein].” Khadir added, “It got to the point” that nearly half a dozen revolutionaries who fell out of favor had their individual names added to the list.
It has been 34 years that this chant has been part of Iranian discourse, writes Khadir, with the exception of Friday prayers after the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks on the US to show “sympathy with the victims.” However, after then-president George W. Bush named Iran as a part of the “Axis of Evil,” use of this chant intensified once again.
Khadir argues that “It cannot be predicted what will be the fate of this chant” after an agreement between Iran and the United States. Even if the chant is eliminated from official media, it may still have a place in street protests.
However, Khadir suggests that “Death to America” was not one of the original chants of the revolution, and was more a reflection of the severing of ties between two countries. Therefore, the chant can be replaced with the more general “Death to Arrogance,” the same term that the supreme leader made popular in his Quds Day speech. This way, the chant is not directed at “a country, government or specific geographic location.”