At the main entry gate to Tehran University, worshipers at Iran’s most famous Muslim prayer service were lined up for a security check one Friday earlier this year when a true believer shouted a familiar slogan.
“Everyone pray for the collapse of the criminal country, the USA,” said a gray-haired man in a white shirt as he stepped up to a small platform to be frisked.
“Amen,” responded dozens of the mostly middle-aged men.
The scene was surreal, even menacing, for a foreign visitor. That is, until a policeman supervising the checkpoint approached.
“We sincerely welcome you,” he told an American visitor. How was one to interpret the chant? he was asked. “That’s just politics,” he said. “The people of America are our friends.”
Welcome to the Friday prayer service, renowned in Iran and throughout the world as a “bash America” event. Televised live every week, it is tightly organized. Buses to transport the congregants from all over the capital lined a nearby street, and roadblocks surround the venue, a covered outdoor pavilion.
Down with the USA. The blood is dripping from your mouth. The source of all criminal and criminals is you.
Official hatred for the United States is engraved on the pulpit. “We will put America under our feet,” it states in Farsi, “We defeat the United States,” in English. And on Wednesday, the 36th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s unelected supreme leader, said the use of the slogan “Death to the U.S.” was grounded in the Iranian constitution.
“The slogan means death to the policies of the U.S. and arrogant powers, and this logic is accepted by every nation when explained in clear terms,” he told an audience of students. They responded with shouts of “Death to the U.S.,” Khamenei’s official website said.
But if this is a central fixture of Iran’s anti-America dogma, it may have lost its appeal. There were empty spaces between the rows of worshipers at the Friday service a reporter visited, and only three women populated the women’s section off to the side. The participants seemed anything but enthusiastic, and the ritual denunciations seemed almost mechanical.
As the service warmed up, staff in the media gallery offered a headphone so that a foreign reporter could follow the sermon and denunciations in simultaneous translation.
We sincerely welcome you.
Iranian policeman to an American visitor
Even before the full service began, Imam Hujjat-ul-Islam Kazem Seddiqi indicated that the government, led by centrist President Hassan Rouhani and now a partner with the United States after the Iran nuclear deal, had some doubts about keeping the prayer meeting going. He noted that Friday prayer is held in 830 cities all over Iran and that 39,000 people helped organize it.
“I have asked the government to provide the budget for Friday prayers,” he said pointedly.
The chants were predictable, taken straight from the revolutionary playbook:
“Hey, USA. Shame on you.”
“Down with the USA. The blood is dripping from your mouth. The source of all criminal and criminals is you.”
And then the inevitable series: “Death to America. Death to Israel. Death to the al Saud family,” a reference to the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Throughout, the worshipers appeared preoccupied or even bored.
“Society is divided into two parts in Iran,” an Iranian reporter explained, speaking not for attribution because he didn’t want to be identified criticizing official policy. “There are those in power, who control the government, the economy and the media. That generation is 60 or over. Soon they will die. They have tried to raise a younger generation to follow them. But even their own children don’t want to follow their fathers.”
He said that the entire population pretends to uphold the official dogma.
But “70 million people here wear a mask,” he said, referring to the nation of 80 million. “We are not interested in politics. We care about our jobs, our family, our living conditions, our well being.”
But he noted that 36 years after Iran’s Islamic revolution, the younger generation of Iranians do not want a revolution, but gradual change.
“We want reform,” he said.
It’s a sentiment borne out by casual encounters with total strangers, who go out of their way to make an American visitor feel at home. “We wish President Obama could do something for Iranians,” said Farhad, 50, an official in a government ministry who approached an American visitor while waiting for a train-like transport to Tehran’s main bazaar.
And what was that? “He should do the same things for us that American leaders do for Americans. More freedom and more social freedom.”
Farhad has his job by virtue of having fought in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. But he said of the eight hours in a work day, most people put in a half-hour of work at best.
He expressed hope that the nuclear arms deal with the U.S. and five other world powers would bring an improvement in daily life in Iran, wracked by inflation and a currency devaluation following United Nations-imposed sanctions.
“We are expecting a miracle,” he said. If that doesn’t happen, “I would love to get out of this country as soon as I can.”
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc