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For Many Iranians, 'Death To America' Are Just Words

Iranian girls show their hands, marked with the words "Down with USA," at Monday's demonstration in Tehran.
Abedin Tahrkenareh
Iranian girls show their hands, marked with the words "Down with USA," at Monday's demonstration in Tehran.

On this 34th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, thousands of Iranians gathered outside that building to once again chant "Death to America."

But New York Times Bureau Chief Thomas Erdbrink told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Monday that though the shouts were the same as they've been since 1979 and the demonstration was larger than in recent years, the people he interviewed there were not virulently anti-American.

"All the people I spoke with," Erbrink said, "didn't really mind Iran talking to the United States ... [and they] admitted they want to see some sort of solution" to three-plus decades of fractured relations.

Anti-American hardliners, Edbrink added, "who feel their interests will be threatened" if multinational talks lead to a resolution of the impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions, packed Monday's demonstration with "government workers and schoolkids."

He noted that hardliners are upset about the willingness of new President Hassan Rouhani and his aides to sit down with the U.S. and its partners. Iran wants a lifting of economic sanctions. The nations on the other side of the table want to make sure Iran does not join the list of nations with nuclear weapons.

Over the weekend, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a message that praised and defended the work of Iran's nuclear negotiators, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul. That would seem to be an endorsement of Rouhani's efforts.

But the ayatollah also lent some support to those who organized the "death to America" protest. As Peter reports, the ayatollah said those who stormed the embassy in 1979 — taking hostages who would be held for 444 days — were the first to uncover the "den of espionage" at the diplomatic mission.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.