'Death to America' Day: How Iran Trained Its Young to Protest

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On Wednesday, Iran officially celebrated the 30th anniversary of the taking of the U.S. Embassy in central Tehran, a day formally designated as "Students' Day" in honor of the several university students killed during the course of the 1979 Revolution. It also resonates because it was a group of university students who stormed and took the embassy on that rainy November morning three decades ago, thus setting the stage for the ongoing U.S.-Iranian conflict and "cold war."

What do students do on Students' Day? Not too long ago, I posed this question to the principal of a boys' high school in Tehran. Do you take your students to the "Nest of Spies," as the former embassy is commonly referred to in Iran, to rally and protest? The principal, a man with impeccable revolutionary credentials, did not hesitate in his reply. "Why would we? What would be the use in that?" Instead, he said his staff would take their students to a private garden as a way to build camaraderie and spirit, a kind of Islamic field trip to celebrate the beginning of the academic year.

For most Iranians, state-sponsored gatherings and anniversaries were distractions or annoyances under normal circumstances. Now, however, they have been given a surprising new impetus: no longer just opportunities to join state-sponsored protest but now to protest against the state.

Denied the right to march in the streets, the opposition movement has taken advantage of days when the state allows, even encourages, large gatherings. The phenomenon of "protest by piggybacking" began just after the disputed June 12 elections, with an opposition rally timed to coincide with the yearly commemoration of the assassination of an important revolutionary leader in June 1981. Several weeks later in September, an even larger crowd dressed in green and numbering in the tens of thousands effectively hijacked the annual Jerusalem Day rallies held across the country. Shouts of "Death to Israel" were replaced by a chorus of "Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life only for Iran!" and "Death to Russia," the latter slogan the consequence of Moscow's early acceptance of the presidential election results.

On Wednesday, opposition rallies were held in various cities across Iran. In Tehran, protesters gathered in the large Vali Asr and Haft e Tir squares in the central section of the capital. Footage and reports from opposition websites show demonstrators chanting "Death to the dictator" and "So long as Ahmadinejad remains, this will continue" before being dispersed by an onslaught of plain-clothed and uniformed security forces. At the same time, the traditional shouts of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" echoed in large gatherings organized by the government in front of the old embassy.

What this all speaks to is the special dilemma that the regime now faces. The Islamic Republic in its current form cannot be the Islamic Republic without its current slate of anti-Western commemorations. Yet, by continuing to hold these ritualized rallies and marches, the regime is exposing itself to counter-protests that are steadily undermining the government's authority. On Wednesday there were reports that the state's keynote speaker at the embassy rally was drowned out by the chants of nearby protesters. Worse still from the prospective of Iran's leaders, these chants were picked up by the live radio feed of the event and broadcast throughout the country. In this environment, the number of protestes that show up matters less than the fact that protests are occurring on a regular basis and outside of university settings, something that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

It may even be argued that the years of state indoctrination in "protest" commemoration simply taught the young how to become revolutionary. Where there is injustice, children are told, "protest." It is not by accident that the opposition chants are from the original 1979 Revolution. The holidays, practices, slogans, and iconography that constitute the Islamic Republic of Iran appear to have provided today's green-clad protesters with an arsenal to use against a state that they increasingly see as repeating the mistakes of the regime overthrown three decades ago.