WASHINGTON -- In the past few days, new banners
have popped up around Iran’s capital. They show an Iranian government negotiator sitting across a table from an American government negotiator wearing a suit with army pants and boots with a shotgun in his lap under the table.
"American Honesty," declares the billboard, a not-so-subtle suggestion that despite an emphasis on diplomacy, America's real intention is to take military action against Iran.
The banners appear to be the work of hard-liners in the Islamic republic who are upset by President Hassan Rohani’s recent efforts to decrease tensions with the West and engage with the United States.
The election this past June of Rohani, who has been pushing for moderation and trying to move Iran away from past confrontational policies, has sidelined hard-liners, who now fear further marginalization as a result of potential warming relations with the West.
Most recently they have criticized calls to abandon the "Death to America" chants heard at state events and Friday Prayers for more than three decades.
Calls to abandon the slogan were triggered by Rohani's historic telephone call last month with U.S. President Barack Obama, which hard-liners called “premature.” The conversation smashed a long-held taboo in Iran against talking to America.
Hard-liners have fought back by taking steps to defend their positions and prove that the United States remains an adversary that should not be trusted. In addition to launching the anti-American billboard campaign, they have questioned the secrecy of last week's nuclear negotiation talks in Geneva, and announced a "Down With America" festival.
Hard-line media, including the website "Rajanews," said keeping details of the Geneva talks -- which have been described as positive by Western and Iranian negotiators -- was "suspicious” and warned the government against giving concessions.
Hard-liners have also targeted U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator in nuclear talks, over a comment she made earlier this month.
At an October 3 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sherman answered a question about Iran's past use of "negotiations as a stalling tactic" by saying: "Since we know they're continuing with their nuclear program and because of the history that you pointed out when Rohani was the chief negotiator from 2003 to 2005, we know that deception is part of the DNA,” Sherman said.
The semi-official Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), asked: "Can someone who identifies deception as part of Iranian DNA be trusted?"
The website Mashreghnews said Iran's foreign-policy officials should respond to America's "impertinence" as soon as possible and with force.
President Rohani has made overtures to the West.
Several members of the parliament, including senior lawmaker Alaedin Borujerdi, also lashed out at Sherman, describing her comments as "deplorable.”
"U.S. politics basically rests upon deception and fraud, and they regard other countries as liars," Borujerdi was quoted as saying on October 22 by Iranian state media.
One of the harshest attacks against Sherman came from the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan," which on its October 23 front page "advised" Iran's nuclear negotiating team to boycott Sherman over her "insidious" moves against the Islamic republic.
"Kayhan" described Sherman as an "untrustworthy American element" and accused her of having insulted the Iranian nation by saying that deceit is part of Iranians' genetic makeup.
"Despite the positive attitude of Iran in nuclear talks, comments and stances by the American side shows that they are following their spiteful policies," the influential daily wrote.
On October 22, State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked by reporters whether Sherman's comment "was not meant to imply that President Rohani is genetically incapable of telling the truth?"
"In no way," she said. “In no way. We’ve been very clear that we appreciate some of the many of the things President Rohani has said, that we appreciate the tone coming out of him and the rest of the Iranian delegation to the P5+1, and hope to continue that tone going forward."
Fars covered the comments and said that the State Department had retreated from Sherman's "anti-Iranian" comments.
Amid the controversy, a group of hard-liners announced the launch of a "Down with America" festival
and "the first major international award of Down with America."
The upcoming 34th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4 looks set to be a day on which hard-liners will publicly display their hostility toward the United States and their opposition to the rapprochement.
The anniversary has been marked in past years with chants of "Death to America" and setting fire to the American flag.
But a Tehran-based journalist who did not want to be named said while the attacks by hard-liners seem to be growing, they are not likely to put the brakes on Rohani's outreach efforts.
"For now, [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei backs Rohani and his team, so even though hard-liners are likely to make more noise, I don't think they can derail the talks. Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the U.S. but he has endorsed the nuclear diplomacy. Radicals are in the minority," the journalist said.