Iranians bask in anti-American feeling on anniversary of 1979 U.S. embassy takeover

In an annual rite of anti-Americanism in Iran, thousands gathered Thursday at the site of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran to mark the anniversary of its takeover by student activists in 1979.

The demonstrators brought by buses to the former embassy complex included young and old, university students, military staff and employees of state-run companies who voiced opposition to the nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and world powers.

Many echoed Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has intensified his rhetoric against the United States in recent days despite Iran’s agreement to shelve its uranium enrichment program, which Western countries had worried could lead to a nuclear weapon.

Almost 1 in every 10 demonstrators at the former embassy – now widely dubbed a “den of espionage” – carried placards with Khamenei’s words: “We do not trust America.”

On Wednesday, Khamenei repeated his criticism that the United States has reneged on the nuclear deal. The U.S. government has lifted some sanctions against Iran under the deal but kept in place certain non-nuclear restrictions that continue to hamper Iran’s economy.

“Americans have not honored their promises related to the nuclear deal, and Iranians should rely on their own domestic potential,” Khamenei said in remarks that were aired on state television.

At the rally Thursday, Hossain Salami, the acting commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards, said: “America should know that if they do not honor their agreement in the nuclear deal, we will resume uranium enrichment and send the agreement … to the museum.”

Amir Mohammad Godarzi, 23, an aeronautics student, echoed the hard-liners’ words.

“Our nuclear negotiation team has worked hard, but Americans have not honored their commitments,” Godarzi said.

On Wednesday, banners hung from highways quoted remarks by the Supreme Leader criticizing America and voicing dissatisfaction with the nuclear agreement. In one middle-class neighborhood, a primary school staged a play in which children acted out the roles of angels and Satan and recited poems ridiculing the United States.

The annual commemoration of the embassy takeover – which launched the hostage crisis that saw 52 Americans held captive for 444 days – is a heavily choreographed event among hard-liners in the Islamic Republic. But it took on greater symbolism this year due to deep divisions over the nuclear deal and next year’s presidential election.

President Hassan Rouhani, who has staked his three-year-old administration on the nuclear agreement, faces a stiff reelection challenge in May from conservative forces that view the deal as appeasement.

While Rouhani is expected to win – the theocracy that manages Iran’s elections prizes stability, and the last four presidents each served two terms – his critics say the nuclear deal and the easing of international sanctions have failed to revive Iran’s economy as the president promised.

“Since the nuclear deal was signed, many more factories were shut down due to a lack of capital and many more workers laid off,” said computer science student Yousef Badiei. “But anyway, President Rouhani, unfortunately, will probably be reelected.”

Iran has sentenced several dual nationals – including at least three Americans – to lengthy prison terms in recent weeks, sharply undermining Rouhani’s appeals to the Iranian diaspora to return home and boost foreign investment.

The Iranian military has also continued to back Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war against Sunni Muslim militants. As they left the rally Thursday, crowds chanted support for the Syrian government and other Shiite Muslim-led regimes in the Middle East, saying, “We will never give it up.”

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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