The World

Old Habits Die Hard in Tehran

Members of Iran’s paramilitary Basij militia stand in front of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 25, 2011m to mark the national Basij week. 

Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The big news of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech to a group of Basij militiamen yesterday was his vow, ahead of a new round of nuclear negotiations in Geneva, that Iran would not retreat “one step” from its “nuclear rights” and well as his ugly insistence that “Zionist officials cannot be called humans.”

But there was also this almost too-good-to-be-true detail tucked into a Reuters news item on the event: 

“We want to have friendly relations with all nations, even the United States,” he told an audience of Basij militiamen. “We are not hostile to the American nation. They are like other nations in the world,” he said.

“Death to America,” the militiamen chanted in response.

A number of senior Iranian leaders, including the current president Hassan Rouhani and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, have suggested recently that it might be time to retire or at least reduce the frequency of the “death to America” chant amid recent tentative moves towards detente between the two countries.

“Just like the slogan of ‘Death to Soviet Union’ that we used to chant in the old days, this chant of ‘Death to the US’ can be removed from our political gatherings,” one cleric recently wrote in a newspaper op-ed.

But hardliners have insisted on keeping the chant around, and as yesterday’s Basij rally shows, old habits do indeed die hard.