In Tehran’s largest
anti-U.S. rally in years, tens
of thousands of demonstrators joined Monday in chants of “Death to America” as hard-liners directed a major show of resolve against President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to Washington more than a generation after crowds on the same streets stormed and occupied the U.S. Embassy.

Such America-bashing protests occur every year outside the former embassy compound to mark the anniversary of the 1979 takeover after the Islamic revolution. But the latest demonstration had a dual purpose of sending the boldest warning yet to Rouhani’s government over whether it can expand dialogue with the United States or offer the concessions needed to settle the nuclear impasse with the West.

“Fighting the global arrogance and hostile policies of America is the symbol of our national solidarity,” said Saeed Jalili, who lost to Rouhani in June’s election and later was replaced as the country’s top nuclear negotiator.

The choice of Jalili as the main speaker to the crowd showed how high the rifts reach in Iran.

Jalili is a leading voice of dissent over Rouhani’s overtures to Washington, but he is also a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has given critical support to Rouhani’s initiatives. The growing tensions have left Khamenei — the ultimate decision maker in Iran — in the unusual role of domestic diplomat.

He had stood by Rouhani in apparent hopes that the nuclear talks and outreach can ease Iran’s isolation from the West and help roll back painful sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program. At the same time, he cannot ignore Rouhani’s critics and seeks a middle ground built around his comments that America remains untrustworthy but that Iran is strong enough to pursue talks and exchanges.

Another key test comes later this week when nuclear talks resume in Geneva between Iran and six world powers, including the United States.

White House press secretary Jay Carney acknowledged that the process would not be easy.

“As the president has said, the history of mistrust between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is deep, and it will not be erased overnight. But what we are doing now is not about trust,” he told reporters in Washington.

Asked about the demonstrations and calls of “Death to America” in Tehran on this anniversary, Carney said: “We believe that the vast majority of Iranians would prefer a better relationship with the West and would prefer the benefits of that better relationship with the West, including economic benefits of rejoining the international community, to the current status quo.”

— Associated Press