Popularized during the Iranian revolution, the “Death to America” slogan would greet the U.S. hostages at their release and mark the anniversary of the embassy’s takeover for decades. It would ring out again Tuesday at another American embassy under siege, as supporters of an Iranian-backed militia, furious over deadly U.S. airstrikes, stormed entrances to the embassy compound in Baghdad before Iraqi security forces pushed them out.
The use of “Death to America” in Arabic appeared to reflect the militia’s loyalty to Iran and its backers’ enduring hostility toward the United States, experts said. It came a month after the State Department marked 40 years since the Tehran embassy’s takeover with a reminder of Iran’s danger “to the United States and the world.” Outside the site of the old embassy, Iranians burned effigies of the president.
But scholars say the original chant in Farsi, “Marg bar Amrika,” is slippery in meaning. Often translated to the less threatening “Down with America,” “Marg bar Amrika” gained prominence in protests against what Iranians viewed as the United States’ imperialist meddling — and over the years, it has come to capture both metaphorical and more violent forms of anti-American sentiment, said Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Sloganeering is the art of presenting many messages in a cohesive one,” Smyth told The Washington Post. “And it can play differently to different people.”
Those nuances behind “Death to America” declarations were present back in May 1979. Banners took issue with policy, not citizens, as marchers swarmed near the U.S. Embassy in Tehran: “We like the American people, we hate the American government,” one read, while another called the U.S. Senate the “house of war, corruption and injustice.”
And the demonstrators “generally did not seem terribly worked up about the U.S. policy they were protesting,” The Post’s William Branigin wrote at the time.
The atmosphere on the streets could verge on that of a carnival as Americans such as members of the press mingled with protesters unharmed, said Ervand Abrahamian, professor emeritus of Iranian and Middle Eastern history and politics at Baruch College. The phrase “Death to America” drew on another slogan heard during the Iranian Revolution: “Death to the shah.” Iranians’ displeasure with a leader that a U.S.-backed coup reinstalled in 1953 was mixed with broader resentment toward a country that many feared would continue to interfere in domestic affairs.
College students stormed the embassy in Tehran as a show of defiance, Abrahamian said, seeking to assert independence from a foreign power.
Americans saw an outrage of a different kind, as hostages’ lives were upended in fear and as Carter decried “blackmail.”
Some Iranians have opposed the use of “marg bar Amrika” in recent years, recoiling from its violence with chants of “marg bar hichkas” — “death to nobody,” said Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in Persian language, literature and culture. In 2015, Iranian state media showed men painting over the words “Death to America” on the walls of the former Tehran embassy, leading the Jerusalem Post to hail a potential harbinger of “a new era” amid popular Iranian support for the United States’ now-scrapped nuclear deal with its longtime foe.
The Obama administration’s willingness to negotiate with the Iranian government exemplifies how some leaders have been willing to look past the chants, scholars said. But conservative lawmakers in particular have seen the words as signs of why working with Iran would prove dangerous.
“When someone chants, ‘Yes, certainly, death to America,’ we should take him at his word, and we shouldn’t put him on the path to a nuclear bomb,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said of Iran’s leader as he joined other Republicans in fierce opposition to the talks sought by President Barack Obama.
Throughout the debate, “Death to America” has continued to show up at gatherings in Iran — as well as in Iraq, where Iran has sought influence. This fall, CBS News reported, the slogan popped up on billboards in Baghdad with menacing pictures. One showed a black-clad statue of liberty that seemed to have Donald Trump’s detached head in her hands.
Officials saw Iran’s sway in the signs.
The billboards “are evidence of the government’s inability to control pro-Iranian groups who want to drag Iraq into an international conflict that endangers the country’s future on behalf of Iran,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Iraq’s Nineveh province, according to the network.
Smyth, the fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees many groups’ English translations of “marg bar Amrika” as “Down with America” — and their accompanying claims of no violent intent — as “posturing.”
He imagines the phrase falling more literally on certain ears, he said — like those of someone who just lost a family member to the American airstrikes cited this week by people trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.