TEHRAN -- Tens of thousands of protesters chanting "Death to America!" marched outside the former U.S. Embassy on Monday in a staged rally highlighting hard-liners’ wariness about any possible rapprochement with the Islamic Republic’s archenemy.
The turnout was the largest in years at what has become an annual event marking the anniversary of the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the embassy and the seizure of U.S. hostages. Iran’s official media said millions participated in similar gatherings across the country.
The timing of the much-anticipated and heavily choreographed demonstrations was widely viewed as a pointed message to President Hassan Rouhani at a time when the new president has embarked on a controversial diplomatic outreach to Washington.
In September, Rouhani and President Obama spoke via telephone on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, marking the highest-level contact between U.S. and Iranian leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
President Rouhani "must remain revolutionary," said Morteza Fatollah Zadeh, 22, a student who was among the legions gathered outside the former embassy walls, now festooned with anti-U.S. slogans and crude caricatures of President Obama.
Many marchers noted that Rouhani, himself a stalwart of the Iranian revolution and a longtime government insider, had frequently praised the “Death to America!” and “Death to USA!” chants that have long been a mainstay of revolutionary rhetoric here.
Hard-liners have been reviving the slogan in recent weeks amid an effort by pro-Rouhani moderates to tone down the invective. The controversy about the anti-U.S. chant has highlighted divisions in Iranian society about a possible reconciliation with the West.
A poster at the gate of the former embassy compound urged protesters to shout, “Death to USA!”
Accompanying the anti-U.S. shouts on Monday were the customary cries of “Death to Israel!”
Among the protesters were groups of women dressed in black robes and schoolchildren bused in for the occasion.
The marchers set ablaze U.S. flags and effigies of Obama, who was depicted in posters as a sinner suffering in hell.
A flatbed truck carried a giant pair of boots symbolically stomping on a U.S. flag.
Recent revelations that the National Security Agency had eavesdropped on the telephone calls of world leaders provided additional fodder for the protesters at the embassy, dubbed a "nest of spies" when seized more than three decades ago.
"We knew 34 yeas ago that the U.S. Embassy was a 'den of espionage,'" said Hossian, 56, sporting a beard and gray suit. He declined to give his last name for privacy reasons. "Now all Europe has realized that we were right. U.S. embassies across the world are dens of espionage."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Staff Writer McDonnell contributed from Beirut.