TEHRAN — Supporters of hard-line conservative policies faced a rare public rebuke this week as authorities ordered that anti-American billboards be removed just days after they went up, sparking a fresh round of debate over relations between Tehran and Washington.
Since the relatively moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani took office as president in August, he and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have made several unprecedented gestures toward the United States, including a phone call between Rouhani and President Obama. It was the first direct contact between presidents of the two countries since Iran’s 1979 revolution ousted the shah.
Such diplomatic outreach and the new government’s apparent attempts to quiet anti-U.S. rhetoric have confused and angered supporters of hard-line conservatives who call the United States the “Great Satan” and see any overture to Washington as a betrayal of the principles of the revolution.
The billboards, carrying the English-language slogan “The U.S. Government Styles Honesty,” depict a goateed Iranian official (presumably meant to resemble Zarif) sitting across from a U.S. counterpart who, under the table, conceals symbols of perceived American aggression.
In one, the American is accompanied by an attack dog; in another, he is wearing military fatigues under the table and a coat and tie above it.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about the messages, considering that U.S. flags and effigies of American presidents have been regularly burned in the streets of Tehran during the past 34 years.
But with the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran just a week away, the decision by Tehran’s municipal government to order the removal of the billboards is shocking to some vocal supporters of the nation’s long and proud history of public displays of anti-
Americanism. City officials said only that the organization that put up the billboards hadn’t sought permission.
Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the hard-line daily Kayhan, published an editorial Sunday expressing disbelief at the decision to remove the billboards.
“It seems that some of those close to Rouhani are so angry about the anti-U.S. billboards, challenging the idea of ‘U.S. honesty,’ it is as though the producers of the billboards have insulted their dearest and most sacred beliefs,” Shariatmadari wrote.
The people behind the billboard project, however, are gratified that their work is causing such a stir.
Ehsan Mohammad Hassani, manager of the Owj Institute, a nongovernmental cultural organization that sponsored the billboards, welcomed the attention, saying, “If the end result would be an intensifying and ultimately bursting out of revolutionary anger among our people in the Aban 13 [Nov. 4, the anniversary of the embassy takeover] demonstration and be effective in bringing more glory to this national epic, then let them beat their drums in the media.”
For those still eager to express their hatred toward America, there is another option, and this one comes with the possibility of cash prizes.
A competition called the “First Major International Award of ‘Down with America’ ” is accepting submissions of anti-American art covering topics such as “Why U.S. is not reliable,” “U.S. and breaking promises” and “U.S. and self-conceit.”
All prize money is paid in euros.