Iranians ready to retire 'Death to America'?

Story highlights

  • Nazila Fathi: Iranian regime has long pushed slogan, 'Death to America, but new generation not buying it
  • She says nuclear agreement holds promise for Iran's progress -- economically and in global community
  • Hardliners days seem over

Nazila Fathi is a journalist, translator and commentator on Iran and the author of "The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran." She reported out of Iran for outlets including The New York Times and TIME for nearly two decades until 2009 when she left the country after the government put her under surveillance. A version of this article appeared in August. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)This week Iran's Supreme Leader tried to breathe new life into a slogan that has defined his country's animosity with the United States for 36 years. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told an audience of university students, according to PressTV, the official Iranian broadcaster, that " 'Death to America' doesn't mean death to American nation."

"It means death to United State's policies and death to arrogance," he said and tweeted in English.
As a person who grew up with this slogan, it was a strange thing to hear.
    When I was 11 years old, I had to stand in a line every morning for half an hour, wave my fist in the air along with other girls at my elementary school in Tehran and chant: "Death to Iraq, death to Israel, death to Britain, death to Russia, death to France, death to Germany, death to America."
    Nazila Fathi
    Those words meant nothing to me, especially because my family resented everything that the Islamic regime, which had come to power two years earlier, stood for. As I grew up, many of those chants were dropped. The war with Iraq ended, and Iran restored relations with Russia and the three European countries.
    The regime was left with only two slogans, "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" -- the last threads that define its ideology.
    As a reporter in my 20s, I began covering government-staged protests where people chanted those slogans. Sometimes they expressed anger and resentment for U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the democratic government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953; or for America's support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. But on countless other occasions, the same protesters asked if, as a reporter for American media, I could help them visit the United States.
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    Once, a group of women embraced and kissed my American colleague on both cheeks, proudly announcing "we love American people," before turning around to chant "Death to America." I never sensed there was real hatred toward America or Americans.
    People get tired of living with bigotry, especially if it is used as a weapon of repression at home. The Islamic regime used hostility toward the United States and Israel to promote a revolutionary fervor -- a xenophobic narrative -- for over 36 years. They used it as a moral justification for repression, for going after dissidents, accusing them of vague charges, and jailing them.
    Many pro-democracy protesters who filled the streets in 2009 to oppose what they believed were fraudulent elections were incarcerated on charges of being pawns of the United States and Israel. They appeared, humiliated, on nationally broadcast programs, admitting to being spies. Many of them have said after their release that they were tortured to make false confessions.
    Since the late 1990s, a new generation of Iranians that has come of an age has used every possible opportunity to oppose the regime's ideals. They have flocked to the polls and staged massive rallies to express their desire for a normal life, meaning more social and political freedom, better economy, and integration into the global community. In 1997, they elected President Mohammad Khatami, who had promised to democratize the system, with an overwhelming majority of 70% of the votes.
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    A generational shift has already taken place since my school days. More than 60% of the Iranian population is under the age of 30 according to the World Bank, while most founding fathers of the revolution have died or are aged. More than half of university students have been women since 2000, with the number reaching 70% last year at many universities. Illiteracy is almost nonexistent among the youth, and they have been connected to the outside world through satellite television and the Internet for over a decade.
    When people poured into the streets to celebrate Iran's agreement with world powers over nuclear weapons last summer, they also spoke on Iranian state-television -- ironically the propaganda arm of the regime -- of their desire for change. "We want a better life," people repeated, each in different words.
    Not a single person referred to xenophobic narratives of the regime. I saw people holding printed banners reading "Hardliners, your days are over," referring to a small population. Some women took off their headscarves to mock the regime's law that requires them to veil or face the lash.
    While the deal provides assurance for the international community that Iran would not have the hardware to make nuclear weapons and places its program under intrusive inspection, it also, Iranians hope, could change the course of their country. People are optimistic that with the lifting of international pressure, the economy will improve and they can find the space to force the regime to respect human dignity and rule of law.
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    With the deal, the country's Islamic rulers had finally broken the taboo of speaking to the United States, often referred to as The Great Satan. For 20 months, Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time with one another than they did with any other foreign official.
    Now, liberal forces in Iran who brokered the deal, need to work further with their American counterparts to see that it is implemented. Analysts believe the process will empower them and marginalize hardliners, whose hawkish policies at home and in the region, and support for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, have been a source of embarrassment for many Iranians.
    Political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran University, told The Guardian that the nuclear deal will most likely translate into greater electoral support for the liberals in the 2016 Parliamentary elections. Because of their engagement with the West, they will be forced to craft policies that are more responsive to international demands.
    Yet, it would be naïve to think that change will come quickly or Iran and the United States will normalize ties overnight -- even with the agreement. Iran's propaganda rhetoric is still churning, although it has lost its desired impact.
    The country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final word on state matters, has hardly made a public speech since his appointment in 1989 without referring to the United States as the enemy. In his first appearance after the deal, he urged his supporters to continue chanting "Death to America."
    Many would like to see the slogan shelved. But for now, the Ayatollah's actions hold far more promise for Iranians than face-saving rituals showcasing revolutionary ideals: He endorsed the talks with the United States when they began two years ago, and during the same public appearance after the accord was reached, he put a stamp of approval on the agreement.
    It meant he had heard the voice of his people, and perhaps at the age of 76, he wants to set things right.