TENS of thousands of demonstrators have packed the streets outside the former US embassy in Tehran in the biggest anti-American rally in the capital in years, a show of support for hard-line opponents of president Hassan Rouhani’s historic attempt at rapprochement with Washington.
Such protests occur every year to mark the anniversary of the 1979 embassy takeover following the Islamic Revolution. But yesterday’s demonstration was larger than its recent predecessors after calls for a major showing by groups such as the powerful Revolutionary Guard. The protest also heard chants of “Death to America” that some of Mr Rouhani’s backers have said should no longer be used.
The crowds also sent a message to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has cautiously backed Mr Rouhani’s overtures to the US and efforts to end the impasse over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Opponents of thawing relations with the US have said they will not back down, opening the prospect of deeper internal rifts and tensions that could put pressure on the Ayatollah to reconsider his backing of Mr Rouhani’s exchanges with the US.
In September, Mr Rouhani accepted a phone call from president Barack Obama following the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, where US Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Iran’s foreign minister. Ties between the two countries were severed after the 1979 embassy siege, which began a hostage crisis with 52 people held for 444 days.
Critics of the dialogue made their views immediately known, hurling insults and eggs at Mr Rouhani’s entourage upon their return from New York.
Late last month, huge banners appeared around Tehran depicting the US as a sinister and deceitful adversary that seeks to weaken Iran.
Protesters yesterday stamped on images of Mr Obama and the US flag. Others carried banners reading “We trample America under our feet” and “The US is the Great Satan”. One image showed Mr Obama in a wrestling costume with Star of David earrings, symbolising Israel.
On Sunday, the Ayatollah appeared to chide hardliners by denouncing any attempts to undermine Iran’s nuclear negotiators. Talks with world powers are scheduled to resume on Thursday in Geneva.
Diplomats “are on a difficult mission and nobody should weaken those who are on assignment,” the official IRNA news agency quoted the Ayatollah – who has the final say on all matters of state – as telling a group of students.
Iran seeks to have economic sanctions eased in exchange for concessions in its nuclear programme to address concerns by the West, which fears Iran’s uranium enrichment could eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical applications.