The often-repeated phrase by Iranian leaders of “Death to America,” is not directed at its people, but its political decisions, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed on Tuesday, ahead of the anniversary to the U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Tehran on November 4th 1979.
The ‘conciliatory’ nature of his statements illustrated that the growing pro-West sentiment among the Iranian people may finally be having an effect, even on revolution hardliners like Khamenei.
The desire to move on from the troubled past of Iran’s relationship with the U.S. can be perfectly demonstrated through Ebrahim Asgharazadeh, who orchestrated the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In collaboration with future president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who actually opposed the plan, Asgharazadeh originally plotted an occupation of the embassy that would last only 48 hours. Things quickly escalated beyond his control and resulted in a hostage situation that lasted 444 days.
Asgharazadeh commented on the impact of the embassy crisis, ““We took the Americans hostage for 14 months, but then we became hostages of that incident for 35 years. We should put the history behind us and we should not let our future be taken hostage by our past.”
Even though U.S.-Iran relations at the time had already been soured due to the U.S.-backed overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the hostage crisis helped to harden positions on both sides.
Asgharazadeh has since become an advocate for improved relations with the U.S. especially in regard to the recent nuclear agreement. It is a sentiment he shares with one of his former hostages, John Limbert, who now works as a senior advisor on Iran for the Obama administration.
Khamenei’s redefining of the meaning behind the “Death to America” slogan seems to be an acknowledgement of the damage that was done during the 1979 event, and a move to lessen its impact in recognition of the desires of reformists like Asgharazadeh.
A recent sign that the Iranian people had grown tired of the status quo on U.S.-Iran relations occurred in 2009 during the anniversary of the hostage crisis. Normally the Iranian government commemorates the event with demonstrations and chants of the infamous slogan, but pro-democracy protesters instead chanted “Death to the Dictator,” in reference to Khamenei.