National Security & Defense

With Hostages and ‘Death to America’ Chants, Iran Shows That Bullying Works

Outside the former American embassy in Tehran, November 2013. (AFP/Getty)

The proposed nuclear treaty aside, Iran’s behavior leaves much to explain. Consider the national “Death to America” rallies and the imprisonment of four Americans, including Amir Hekmati, a former Marine sergeant who went to Iran for the first time to visit his grandmother and was imprisoned not long after his arrival, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter. Why such behavior from a country that claims it wants to move toward normal relations?

Robin Wright’s New Yorker essay “‘Death to America!’ and the Iran Deal” raised exactly this question. Wright interviewed several leading Iranians, each of whom attempted to rationalize or minimize the slogan. The chief of staff to the president of Iran tried to minimize the protesters’ chant by looking at the larger context: “For them, it is not Americans per se.” Iran’s deputy oil minister explained: “Saying ‘Death to America!’ . . . comes out as a matter of routine.” An “influential” political scientist offered what might be the least reassuring statement of the group: “It’s said by only twenty percent of the population. And only a teeny percent of that twenty percent believes in it.” 

Americans will quickly recognize this last quote as similar to the rationale sometimes offered for racist or misogynist statements, along the lines of “Don’t worry; he doesn’t really mean what he is saying.” Or imagine these statements if one replaced “Death to America” with “long live the Confederate flag.” Americans should not accept either a political symbol associated with slavery or a group chant for the death of an entire nation. And no equivalency between the Confederacy and the Islamic Republic of Iran is implied, or even required, for this point to be valid. Can we not reject both?

President Obama seems to have lowered the bar in his American University speech in early August by stating, “Just because Iranian hardliners chant ‘Death to America’ does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe.” All right, then: No need to be concerned about state-sponsored mass hate movements unless they are unanimous.

There is an alternative explanation. What if these activities are not clumsy displays of passion or over-reaches by the state police? What if they are deliberate exercises in state power — in bullying — with clear goals in mind?

With the chants, it is the Iranian public that is being bullied through public displays of compulsory behavior. The statements are not a random by-product of the system; they are the goal of the system. These mass exercises allow the security apparatus to weed out moderates and disloyal elements, set a tone of animosity, and reinforce a culture of victimization. Whether people believe the chants is largely beside the point. The goal is for radicals to enforce their will through street mobs.

The ‘Death to America’ rallies and our non-response help lock Iranian politics into hard-line anti-Americanism.

The rallies also have the utility of demonstrating to both domestic and international audiences that Iran can directly insult the U.S. — and the U.S. will not respond. The hate rallies and America’s non-response have the further harmful effect of locking Iranian politics into hard-line anti-Americanism.

By taking Americans hostage, Iran bullies not its own citizens but the U.S.: We can even injure the U.S., and it will do nothing.

So bullying is not an exercise in empty symbolism. Indeed, the symbolism is powerful, but only because it is backed by force. It is an unmistakable signal to various constituencies that Iran is the stronger power.

What should the U.S. do?

To begin, the U.S. should never enter negotiations from which it can’t walk away. Once the other side senses that the U.S. is wedded to the process, it is free to stiffen its demands. Only when the U.S. shows a willingness to break off talks will the other side be willing to compromise.

Thus the very first point to stress at the very first meeting should have been that all “Death to America” chants must cease. This would have provided a test of the goodwill of the Iranian government and would have strengthened the hand of any moderates. By not insisting on this, the U.S. validated those who staked out the most hostile position.

In the same vein, when the U.S. appears as a supplicant, it assumes the role of weaker power. This provides an incentive to Iran to dismiss any request. So every time the U.S. asks for the release of the four Americans, it allows Iran to appear strong by disregarding the request. This perception is reinforced through repetition.

Kerry stated that he raised the issue of American prisoners at “every meeting,” apparently not recognizing that this might have been precisely what Iran wanted. Perhaps all the outcomes of the negotiations are difficult to evaluate, but we can already see at least three: The negotiations have increased the likelihood that the four Americans will remain in captivity through the near-term; second, they confirm “Death to America” as hate speech the American government will tolerate; third, they call into question the sincerity and intent of the Iranian government.

Why do nations bully? Because it can work.

— Frank Lavin served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. He currently runs a business in Shanghai.

Frank Lavin served as undersecretary for international trade in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently the CEO of Export Now, a firm that helps U.S. brands in China.

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