In Iran, reformers must battle the 'Death to America' crowd

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Drivers in Iran's capital, Tehran, were treated to a billboard ad campaign last week called "American Honesty." The billboards, posted in many busy intersections, offered a less-than-flattering image of the US as a negotiating partner. The Iranian government says the ads went up without their knowledge or consent, and this weekend, the posters came down.

It's all part of the long-running battle between hard-liners and reformers in Iran. So says New York Times' Tehran bureau chief, Thomas Erdbrink. I asked him to describe some of the billboards he saw.

Thomas Erdbrink: They show two men sitting across [from] each other on a round table, and one is clearly Iranian, and he has an Iranian flag next to him. The other one is clearly American and has an American flag next to him, but where the Iranian is dressed very formal, the American is actually wearing combat trousers.

The same poster, in another variation, is of the American negotiator with an attack dog. Another one is a poster of a hand reaching out, which is being met with a very scary, almost Halloween-like claw. This also is a famous saying from Iran's Supreme Leader, who says that, "The Americans, they have an iron fist covered up with a velvet glove."

It all means that they don't trust the Americans in negotiations.

Schachter: Right. It's about the duolicity of American officials.

Erdbrink: Exactly.

Schachter: These billboards that you described have come down, and as we said, that seems like good news, but I guess the hard-line faction is planning a grand day of "Death to America" sometime next month, early next month. What's up with that?

Erdbrink: Well, every year here on November 4th, the Iranians commemorate that Islamic students, in the first year of the revolution, 1979, took over the US embassy building. You know, the event was recently captured in the movie, "Argo."

Every year, this is remembered by Iranians, a lot of them actually school children who are bused in and who go in front of the embassy and shout, "Death to America!" in order to show their allegiance to the revolution and to the ideals of the revolution, as they call it.

Schachter: Thomas, what does the American embassy look like these days there in Tehran?

Erdbrink: Well, the American embassy lies like a sort of rotten tooth in the center of Tehran. It's a very big garden where, unlike the rest of the city, nothing has changed over the last 34 years. When you walk past it, you see a relatively low wall with murals on them of Lady Liberty with a skull, and variations on this theme.

When you peek over the wall, you see this huge embassy. You can see the garden. You can see some of the residences where the diplomats used to live, only now it is no longer called the US embassy but the Great Den of Espionage. It is a base for an Iranian paramilitary organization.

Schachter: Thomas, why not pull that tooth, so to speak? Why not raze the embassy and put up something else there?

Erdbrink: Well, if you're optimistic, you would say that there are some in Iran who think that at some point, this building could be put to its old use again, and this could be a new American embassy, even though we all know that US embassies across the world are big fortresses outside of the city centers.

Those who are more pessimistic would say, at least from an American point of view, would say that the Iranians are keeping the embassy building alive as a kind of testament to their own achievements in the revolution.

Every day, again, the people driving past this embassy, walking past this embassy, are remembered by the fact that there are no relations between Iran and the world's only super-power, and that is something that a lot of Iranian leaders are very happy about.

Schachter: Now, Thomas, a lot of what we talk about, including this battle of the billboards, is different political factions kind of having at each other. What do regular Iranians make of this battle between hardliners and less hardliners, I guess?

Erdbrink: You just need to go to the airport in Tehran to see how many Iranians are actually arriving from the United States, visiting their family members here and traveling to the United States from Iran to understand that, for normal people, relations have never stopped.

Schachter: Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran bureau chief of the New York Times. Thank you, as always, for your...