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When Iran’s Supreme Leader Says ‘Death to America’ He Doesn’t Mean You

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adds a bit of nuance: The slogan, he says, is not proof of deep-seated Iranian hatred for Americans.
Photo via Office of the Supreme Leader

At mass political rallies, Iranians are often heard chanting "Marg bar Amrika" — which translates directly to "Death to America" — a slogan that doesn't, on its face, bode well for the future of Iranian-US relations.

But on Tuesday, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered a rare explanation of the phrase, adding a bit of nuance to what is often viewed as proof of deep-seated Iranian hatred for Americans.


"[The] aim of the slogan is not death to American people," Khamenei told a group of Iranian university students on Tuesday. "The slogan means death to US policies and arrogance" -- a construction that doesn't roll off the tongue quite as easily as "Death to America."

The slogan, Khamenei said, has strong support in Iran and is "understandable to every nation."

Though not as common as the "Death to America" slogan, Iranians also chant "Death to Israel" and "Death to Britain" at public rallies.

Khamenei made his remarks ahead of the anniversary of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.  Iranian students stormed the compound and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, after a popular uprising overthrew the US-backed Shah, a brutal dictator whose family had ruled Iran off and on since 1925.

The supreme leader told the assembled students on Tuesday that the US's attitude towards Iran had not changed significantly over the last decades.

"The US will not hesitate [ to destroy Iran]," he said. "The nature of the US attitude is continuation of the same hostile aims from the past, and the nation will not forget this."

Khamenei's speech echoed remarks made by Iran's President Hassan Rouhani earlier this year. "This slogan that is chanted is not a slogan against the American people. Our people respect the American people" Rouhani said. "But…the policies of the United States have been against the national interests of Iranian people, [so] it's understandable that people will demonstrate sensitivity to this issue."

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran and the US have had no formal diplomatic ties. But over the last few years, they have inched towards a more friendly relationship. Over the last summer, Iran agreed to dismantle its nuclear programs in a landmark deal with the US and world powers. In the latest sign of warming relations, last week Iran formally joined international talks to bring an end to the Syrian Civil War.