A woman holds the Iranian flag as she walks past an anti-U.S. mural depicting the Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran in 2010. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Straight From The Ayatollah’s Mouth: The Meaning of ‘Death To America’

Supreme leader says the slogan refers to U.S. politicians, not the people

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has clarified what the oft-heard chant “Death to America” means. While speaking to members of the military during a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Khamenei said the phrase refers to United States President Donald Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“It means death to the American politicians currently in power. It means death to the few people running that country; we have nothing against the American nation.… The U.S. regime has always lived off trespassing for fulfilling its interests. It is the embodiment of evil, then they complain why we chant ‘down with USA’?” he said.

Khamenei’s explanation was also posted to his English-language Twitter account.

The distinction between the American government and its people “is actually one the Iranians have used for years and years,” Richard Nephew, an expert on Iranian sanctions and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told The Media Line.

“Americans are still—as a population—broadly popular in Iran and it does the Iranian government no favors trying to push back on that when so many Iranians have had direct and reasonably positive experiences with the United States in various forms,” he said.

Khamenei is reflecting on the chant now because the Iranians recognize that it is a slogan that doesn’t bring the people of Iran together and just makes things more difficult in the long run, he added.

“It won’t change him saying it, and it won’t change others from doing so, but they’re doing the same thing Pompeo does when he says that our beef is with the Iranian government, not its people. In fact, if you read much of Iranian government propaganda in the last few years, they make a conscious effort to copycat what we do. They find it—I think—convenient and fun.”

Muhammad, an Iranian analyst based in Poland who did not want to reveal his last name, told The Media Line that Iranians differentiate between the U.S. government and its people when celebrating the anniversary of the revolution. “They say they don’t have anything against the American or Jewish people; they only have problems with these governments and politicians.”

American leaders such as President Trump and former president Barrack Obama often made direct appeals to the Iranian people in which they expressed concern for their well-being, he explained. “Iranian leaders do the same thing, saying they are worried about Americans and the kind of government they are under.

“Maybe the average Iranian does not know that the American president is elected democratically through the people’s vote,” Muhammad continued. “The president of Iran is also elected in this manner, which many Americans might not know. The latter might think the regime is just one big establishment that is not connected to or elected by the Iranian people.”

As the Islamic Republic celebrates the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah—Iran’s monarch—and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the country finds itself in dire straits. Last year, the Trump administration withdrew from the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement and slapped heavy economic sanctions on the regime.

It has also been pursuing measures to undermine Iran’s leadership and curb its regional ambitions often carried out through proxy groups like Lebanon’s Hizbullah. In recent days, both Pompeo and Bolton have met with exiled Iranian opposition figures.

Meanwhile, Iran has been flexing its military muscles as the diplomatic and economic pressure intensifies. Tehran recently announced the “successful test” of a new cruise missile with a range of over 1,350 kilometers (about 850 miles), which would put the entire Middle East in range.

On the economic front, however, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has acknowledged the sanctions are beginning to sting. Last week, he said the Republic was facing its worst economic situation since the start of the revolution. The Iranian leadership has also shown frustration with European powers hoping to salvage the nuclear deal through a so-called “Special Purpose Vehicle” that would allow for non-dollar trade with the Islamic Republic, thereby circumventing American sanctions.

During the recent ceremony, Khamenei said: “These days there is talk about Europeans and their offers. My advice is not to trust them, just like with the Americans. I’m not saying cut ties with Europe; it is about trust.”

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