Iranian protesters chant 'Death to America' on hostage anniversary

TEHRAN — Tens of thousands of protesters chanting "Death to America" marched outside the former U.S. Embassy in Iran's capital 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 an annual event marking the anniversary of the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the embassy in Tehran and the seizure of U.S. hostages. Iran's official media said millions of people participated in similar gatherings around the country.

The timing of the much-anticipated and heavily choreographed demonstrations was widely viewed as a pointed message to President Hassan Rouhani as he pursues a controversial diplomatic outreach to Washington.

In September, President Obama spoke via telephone with Rouhani while the Iranian leader was in the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly, marking the highest-level contact between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

A campaign among supporters of the president to tone down the "Death to America" invective has elicited a backlash among conservatives opposed to reconciliation with the "Great Satan," as the United States was labeled by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution.

Rouhani "must remain revolutionary," said Morteza Fatollah Zadeh, 22, a student who was among the legions marching outside the former embassy walls, festooned with anti-U.S. slogans and crude caricatures of Obama.

Many marchers noted that Rouhani, before his landslide election in June against a field of hard-line candidates, had praised the "Death to America" and "Death to USA" chants that have long been a mainstay of revolutionary rhetoric and Friday prayer oratory.

The dispute about the anti-U.S. slogans has highlighted the deep divisions in Iranian society about a possible reconciliation with the West.

Among the protesters at the former embassy 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 in hell. A flatbed truck carried a giant pair of boots symbolically stomping on a U.S. flag.

Recent reports that the National Security Agency had eavesdropped on the private calls of world leaders in Europe and elsewhere provided additional fodder for marchers outside the ex-embassy, dubbed a "nest of spies" when it was seized more than three decades ago.

"We knew 34 years ago that the U.S. Embassy was a 'den of espionage,' " said Hossian, 56, who declined to give his last name. "Now all Europe has realized that we were right. U.S. embassies across the world are dens of espionage."

Despite the polemics, Rouhani's conciliatory policies toward the West appear to have considerable support from much of the population and from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on matters of state in Iran's theocratic ruling structure. The new president is hopeful that crippling, Western-led economic sanctions can be relaxed in exchange for Tehran's guarantees that its controversial nuclear program is used strictly for peaceful purposes.

On the eve of Monday's mass rallies, the supreme leader strongly backed presidential envoys who are in nuclear talks with six world powers, including the United States. In a rebuff to hard-liners, Khamenei warned his compatriots against undermining the Iranian nuclear negotiating team.

"No one should weaken them, insult them or consider them compromisers," Khamenei told a gathering of students Sunday.

However, he expressed skepticism about the nuclear talks' prospects for success and warned that cheerful gestures from U.S. diplomats could be deceiving. "We should not trust a smiling enemy," Khamenei said.

The nuclear negotiations are scheduled to resume Thursday in Geneva. Hard-liners in Iran have assailed the president's team for not providing details of proposals made during a previous round of talks last month.

Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States have been severed since the 1979 embassy siege, which resulted in 52 U.S. citizens being held hostage for 444 days until their release on Jan. 20, 1981. The event has long cast a dark shadow on U.S.-Iranian relations.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

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