On U.S. Embassy Takeover Anniversary, Iran's Hardliners Rally

A group of hardliners in Iran plans a "Grand Day of Death to America" on Monday, which is the 34th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Steve Inskeep talks to New York Times Tehran Bureau Chief Thomas Erdbrink about the conservative effort to dampen a new wave of openness and optimism ushered in by President Hassan Rouhani.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators are expected to meet again this week.

GREENE: The U.S. wants to resolve questions about Iran's nuclear program. Iran wants relief from American-led sanctions.

INSKEEP: People on both sides talk of easing decades of antagonism, but people in both countries also warn their leaders not to trust the other side. Domestic politics will influence how far both sides can go in diplomacy, as we will hear in this part of the program.

GREENE: Thirty-four years ago today, Iranians seized control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. It's a traditional day of demonstrations in the country.

INSKEEP: Some conservatives there have declared this a Grand Day of Death to America - awkward in the midst of peace talks.

We go first to Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times. He's in Tehran. Welcome back to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention this death to America chant is constant at demonstrations in Iran, but here it is in a big way. What's different, if anything, about today?

ERDBRINK: Well, the Iranian hardliners who have organized today's demonstration decided that they wanted to make a point. So they brought in lots of people, people who are working in government offices but also lots of school kids. And they were all there right in front of me, shouting death to America a million times.

INSKEEP: And the fact that you are with an American newspaper, did they get upset at you particularly?

ERDBRINK: No, not at all. And actually all those people I spoke with told me privately that they didn't really mind Iran talking to the United States. And they admitted that they wanted to see some sort of solution for this long and bitter period of both countries not talking to each other. The majority of the people clearly is in favor of talks with the United States, but there is a very strong force in Iranian politics.

These are the hardliners that we're talking about - hardline Shiite Muslim clerics, military commanders who feel their interests will be threatened if there is any sort of rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. And they were the ones organizing this day and they were flexing their muscles.

INSKEEP: We've seen images of billboards over highways in Tehran showing an American and an Iranian at a negotiating table. And the image shows the American holding a gun under the table. Clearly this is more than just a single day of effort to raise suspicions about the United States.

ERDBRINK: Absolutely, and actually, the Tehran municipality took down the posters because they said were hung up without any proper permission. But today, during the rally, the posters were handed out by the hundreds. It's clear that the people behind this effort of, well, sabotaging the talks are influential, wealthy, and it's almost impossible for President Rouhani to silence them at this point.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people when you said President Rouhani, you're talking about Hasan Rouhani, the newly-elected president of Iran who campaigned for better relations with the rest of the world. But is there a sense that if the power structure is this skeptical, Thomas Erdbrink, that his time is somewhat limited here?

ERDBRINK: Well, it will definitely be very difficult for Mr. Rouhani, who made a lot of promises. And as you said, the main one being to improve relations with other countries when, at the same time, people in Tehran are shouting death to America, whereas he is engaged in what are Iran's most complicated diplomatic negotiations since the revolution 34 years ago. It is clear that all the changes he has promised might not bear fruit if he is not given more space by these hardliners.

INSKEEP: Even amid all these chants of death to America, though, isn't there a sense of optimism? We keep hearing about tourists coming back to Iran, about people being excited about visiting a country that maybe they left years ago.

ERDBRINK: Well, it's definitely true that after President Rouhani was elected in the surprise June elections, yes, a lot of the Iranian-Americans are coming back. Travel is picking up. But I don't know if that is an overall indication of the changes that Mr. Rouhani can actually make.

As I was driving to the demonstration this morning, the taxi driver who I've known for quite a while as being a very quiet man who never debates politics, he was very upset this morning. He said I don't understand our country anymore. On one hand, we are talking to the United States. On the other hand we are shouting death to America. To me as a simple man, he said of himself, it is clear that this will not lead to anything. He kind of said that he was very quickly losing his faith in President Rouhani and his ability to make the real big changes that he wanted, at least.

INSKEEP: Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times, always a pleasure to talk with you.

ERDBRINK: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: He's in Tehran.

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