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I was watching an old Anthony Bourdain show and I saw local Iranians in Tehran chanting "Death to America!" and then in the next scene saying "We need one day to be friends".

Do Iranians mean and intend the destruction and conquest of America or something else?

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    Vote to close. There's no way to know what the internal motivations of people are, and people often chant things for no other reason than that they are in a crowd and someone starts a chant. Oct 15 at 13:37
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    This question is more of a linguistic and translation issue, as seen by the assorted answers. Closing it because it's asking to read minds and determine internal motivations is not correct, because there is plenty of public commentary about how the phrase is used. Voted to re-open. Oct 15 at 16:31
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    – Philipp
    Oct 15 at 20:13
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    somewhat related (and surprising answer!) How does one buy a burnable American flag in Tehran?
    – uhoh
    Oct 15 at 22:47
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    Perhaps you could be more specific about which Iranians are included in "some"?
    – jamesqf
    Oct 16 at 4:41
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"Death to <whatever>" is to some extent one of those ritualised phrases whose actual meaning is separate from the literal meaning of the phrase. It is a statement of disapproval that might be better translated as "Down with America", as a more equivalent English phrase.

In the middle of 2021, there were plenty of demonstrations with Iranians protesting against their government with "Death to the dictator" and "death to Khamenei". In 2017 there were chants of "Death to Hizbollah" in protest about food shortages in Iran when it was perceived that the government was more interested in funding Hizbollah and pursuing regional foreign policy goals that in addressing internal issues.

Compare that with an example that most western English speakers would recognise: an 18 year old crashes their parents' car, and says "Oh hell, my parents are going to kill me". No-one hearing that would take it literally. It is universally understood to be a dramatic overstatement, and if there is one thing that Iranian dialog is known for, it is hyperbolic overstatement that isn't intended to be taken literally.

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  • Also some demonstrations with "death to the Islamic Republic" in mid-2021, apparently. At least according to this video: youtu.be/DxFTWd4PhkA
    – Jan
    Oct 16 at 0:12
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    @user48 propaganda? For whom? Explain. Oct 16 at 5:37
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    @user48 and the answer opens with the meaning, and afterwards provides examples of that. The word propaganda has a specific meaning, one of the things needed is an agenda to support. What political message is this answer propaganda for? I struggle to understand your thinking. Oct 16 at 7:42
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    @user48 The question is about how a phrase should be interpreted. To provide evidence for one particular interpretation, PhillS gives examples of similar phrases being used and how they were interpreted. The argument of this answer is that "death to america" is being used in the same way as "death to X" in other contexts. So to understand the meaning of "death to america", the key point is to understand what is intended by "death to"
    – Tyberius
    Oct 16 at 15:41
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    Indeed you might argue that "To Hell with (X)" is far more severe (or offensive) than simply "Death to (X)" and yet it has common currency in Western culture. Oct 16 at 15:54
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"What do we mean from saying death to America?" This is my brief answer as an Iranian.

"Death to America" slogan is (or at least turned into) a kind of sign of dedication (to Iran) among the Iranians, it doesn't mean to conquer Washington as some folks once interpreted, it means that "America! we disagree with your wars, crimes, intrusions, and sanctions on others and ourselves"

However, this is very important to cite that if we say death to America, we exclusively mean the US government, not the US nation as well as the leader of Iran, Mr. Ali Khamenei said once.

"Death to America" means:

We never forget that you have overthrown our PM before the 1979 revolution.

We never forget that you assassinate our scientists.

We never forget that you supported Saddam for attacking us, and caused more than 250 thousand of our people/soldiers to die.

We never forget that you assassinated the father of this nation, General Qassem Soleimani.

We never forget that some of our patients that have the rare diseases are dying (also here) just because we can't import their medicines because of your draconian sanctions. (However, recently we are producing those medicines on our own (If the JCPOA doesn't exist, we can produce more of these medicines))

We never forget that you're lying every second (no exaggeration) about us, about our nation, peaceful nuclear program, beliefs, our government, etc.

We don't forget that 2000 of our soldiers died in our war with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, because of your supporting terrorism there. (also here and here)

We never forget that you have established more than 260 TV/radio/website channels for "free" and in "Persian" to keep up with your psychological war and misinformation against our nation. (While the Americans must pay for even TV channels in the US)

(the reference is in Persian, so I translate it: The director-general of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting(IRIB) said in a report that "more than 260 Farsi satellite TV channels are propagating against the Islamic Republic"

We disagree with your wars and occupation in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine...

and so much more things that if I wanna cite, it takes a whole day to write, I just mentioned the most important ones.

This doesn't mean to attack America or something, it means that we fight with this regime and their cruelty till their brutality ends, and in fact "death to America" means death to capitalism, death to Zionism, death to globalization, and political structure of the US that is built on war and sanction, right of the bat.

It pays to add that the slogan "Death to America" is always accompanied by "Death to Israel", "Death to Zionism" and "Death to the UK".

Every year on the anniversary of our revolution, 22 Bahman (February 11), we hold a march (for showing that we're still dedicated to the values and goals of our revolution) and these slogans would be chanted by the people, however, there's variety of situations which we chant these slogans.


"Where does it come from?"

We have a belief from our religion (Shiism) that says:

"Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves"
-Imam Hussain (AS) the son of Imam Ali (AS)

[This sentence is truly the explanation of humanity and actually wants to say that "humans are responsible for what/who they support"]

So, we say death to America to voice our disagreement with the crimes of the US and the Zionists and others in the world, not just because the US is our enemy, that's why I say "We say death to America because of Yemenis, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and other oppressed nations".

Note: Due to the fair criticism of some folks in comments I added more references for each part. (Some of the references are from the American/British news agencies that I don't deny or approve the accuracy of all of their words about Iran)

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    I would like to upvote, not least because this is the only answer that provides a direct experiential perspective, but I don't know if it is true that the United States "built ISIS," whether to destroy Iran or otherwise. In fact, ISIS gave them a lot of geopolitical problems, which is why they spent a great deal of money and time fighting against it. Do you mean that the United States contributed to the formation of ISIS by creating a power vacuum in Iraq, and more indirectly by training the Afghani mujihadeen, of whom Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may have been one?
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 15 at 18:36
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    @Obie2.0 about ISIS, as you know Trump confessed that the US built ISIS, but anyway, the ISIS is built out of Wahhabism (Hillary Clinton said once "We found Wahhabism" by a little search you would find that the US and the UK founded Wahhabism, and what (non-muslim) Wahhabis believe? If you kill 3 (Shia)Iranians you'll go to heaven! Who will benefit from our destruction? The US and the Zionists. There's a lot of evidence (at least in persian) that US had been backing ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, since we were there and fighting with ISIS.
    – user48
    Oct 15 at 18:44
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    @Obie2.0 there's been a terrorist group in south of Iran (maybe 10 yrs ago) that killed and injured more than 800 Iranians, the name of their leader was Rigi, iran's intelligence agency finally arrested him, and he confessed quote "all the money and plots of attacks came from the US and Israel" the US did it a lot of times, this is not new. 2000 of our soldiers died in our war with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
    – user48
    Oct 15 at 18:48
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    Keep in mind that Trump said Obama founded ISIS, before he was even a presidential candidate, apparently. That's not a confession, that's the invective of a politician slightly disconnected from the real world.
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 15 at 18:58
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    "since I'm an Iranian I don't think I need to cite any source." What ?? I'm surprised that this answer got so many upvotes. Sure, it gives explanations, but only from a point of view of a single individual with no sources. The answerer is writing "We never forget" here, but who is he representing? Are there written sources prooving that these statements are not just the answerer's opinion but also a reflection of what Iranians in general mean by "Death to America"? Oct 18 at 6:23
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What they mean by "death to" is basically "screw you" or "screw that."

When the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting explains why he chose what seemed to be the most damaging of choices to be beaten with by an abusive foster-parent, he explained it like this:

Will Hunting: He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and say, 'Choose.'

Sean McGuire: Well, I gotta go with the belt there.

Will Hunting: I used to go with the wrench.

Sean McGuire: Why?

Will Hunting: Cause f--- him, that' why.

Obviously, Will was not expressing a desire to copulate with his abusive caretaker, he was expressing contempt. This is similar to how "death to" is used in the Iranian society. It's more of an expression of extreme frustration with things they can't influence or control.

From an American's travel blog:

As we were struggling to drive away in a horribly congested street, our guide made a telling aside. He declared, “Death to traffic.” Then he said, “Because we can do nothing about this traffic, we can all say ‘Death to Traffic’.” Did he mean kill all those drivers that were in our way? Does Iran really mean death to the US and Israel? Or is it a mix of international road rage, fear, frustration — and the seductive clarity of a catchy slogan? This quirky cultural trait might be worth looking into and trying to understand.

Rick Steve's Europe - Rick's Travel Blog: Death to Israel.... Death to Traffic

I also remember reading (I will try to track down the reference and link it here) that the popularity of the phrase initially took hold in the political arena, decades ago, where there was a major rally with supporters of the two candidates chanting and jeering each other. One candidates supporters started chanting "long live Candidate X" and the other faction, to basically troll them, counter-chanted with "death to Candidate X." It became popular to chant "death to" to express strong general opposition.

You will repeatedly see both politicians and regular Iranians declaring that they have no particular hatred towards the American people, but have big issues with our government, leaders and policies. The literalism being thrown about is, basically, a convenient propaganda to build up some "other" as an evil, murderous boogeyman. The truth, as always, is more complicated and nuanced than that.

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    The link to Good Will Hunting seems rather forced. You're comparing free words with forced actions.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 16 at 6:16
  • "You will repeatedly see both politicians and regular Iranians declaring that they have no particular hatred towards the American people" - citation needed. Although citations wouldn't really prove that it's little more than "basically, a convenient propaganda", because what they say in some diplomatic settings may not be what they really believe, nor does it mean they'd have a problem killing Americans if they feel it would serve their goal, and, even giving them the benefit of the doubt, there may still be plenty of others who do actually mean it literally (not to mention it blurring lines).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 16 at 6:25
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    @NotThatGuy You are not aware of the immense gap in worldviews between the (totalitarian) government and most of the regular people?
    – user39891
    Oct 16 at 7:23
  • @NotThatGuy "death to..." being free words describing a nonspecific death in nonspecific circumstances, and "fuck..." being a forced action carried out transitively by a subject upon an object, doesn't this merely back up the answer's point that the term is meant nonthreateningly?
    – Will
    Oct 18 at 15:24
  • @Will I may just have misread this. Given that "f--- him" (and its variants) is an exceedingly common saying, I might just have been looking for a deeper link to the quote and misread this to suggest that him choosing the wrench is instead the thing that "death to..." is being compared to.
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 18 at 15:36
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I guess it depends which Iranians are asked and when, e.g. Wikipedia says (citing the NYT):

On 8 February 2019, [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei stated "Death to America means death to Trump, Bolton and Pompeo. We criticize American politicians who are managing that country. Iranian nation are not against American people."

but also a somewhat less personalizing interpretation from 2015:

Mohammad Nahavandian, chief of staff for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that:

If you go and ask anyone who uses that slogan [...] what he is against, it is interference in Iran's policies by overthrowing a nationally elected prime minister at the time of Mossadegh. For them, what they are against is the kind of government who shoots an airplane full of innocent passengers" (referring to Iran Air flight 655, an Iranian airliner shot down by an American naval vessel). "For them, it's not the people of America, per se. For them, they are opposed to that sort of policy, that sort of attitude, that sort of arrogance. It's not a nation. It's a system of behavior."

An Iranian academic from the University of Tehran said something similar to the quote right above in 2015, i.e. the meaning being "death to American foreign policy". There are actually some prior clarifying speeches from Khamenei as well; these (pre 2010) were mostly in terms of disapproval of US policies (e.g. support for Israel) and the perceived US "vanity", "arrogance", and "desire to control".

In commenting on the first snippet/quote (a video of which can also be found), an article on the American Iranian Council website (after a fair bit of linguistic intro in which it says that death- and sacrifice-based idioms are common in Persian with non-literal meanings) says/concludes that:

Therefore the most comprehensive translation of ‘Marg bar Amrika’ would be ‘Down with the American government’ and calling for ‘regime change’ in Washington is not a far cry from statements made by members of the Trump Administration on the ‘regime in Tehran’.

As Obie 2.0 points in a comment on another answer, there's a seemingly official English version of that 2019 speech though on khamenei.ir, which uses "death" in the translation though. But, on the same site, there's another article on the same 2019 speech, which uses the translation "down with". Also on the same site, a translation of a 2015 speech (when US-Iran relations were better) uses the "death" word, so the translation word doesn't seem to vary with the political climate, at least in that venue. On the other hand, there's a 2018 page that also uses "down with" as the translation, so I suspect the choice of word might have more to do with the translator employed for a particular job/page.

During the Iranian revolution calls of "Marg bar Shah" (referring to the Shah/ruler) were also common. Some adaptations of these calls were heard e.g. during the 2009 protests:

The slogan “Marg bar dictator,” which translates as either “Death to the dictator” or “Down with the dictator,” adapts the 1979 revolutionary slogans “Marg bar Shah” (Down with the Shah) and “Marg bar Amrika” (Down with America) to decry incumbent leaders as despotic and deserving of downfall. This act of opposing the current regime by shouting a slogan used against the Shah in 1979 reveals the Green Movement’s subversive redirection of revolutionary zeal. Shouts of “Marg bar dictator” threatened the legitimacy of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic by equating them with the corrupt and authoritarian Pahlavi regime. Protesters also targeted Ahmadinejad’s foreign allies with the slogan, exclaiming, “Marg bar Russi; Marg bar Chine” or “Down with Russia; Down with China.”

So as shocking as the literal translation may be, at least the phrase is used more broadly in political discourse in Iran. One of the funny/ironic adaptations at that time (2009) was "death to potatoes" ("marg bar sibzamini"), perceived as being used as cheap electoral bribes.

According to Reza Mirsajadi, the political use of the "marg bar" phrase actually predates the 1970s Islamic revolution in Iran:

The phrase became popular during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), when political activists would chant "zende ba ___" ("long live ___") in support of a policy or leader, or "marg bar ___" in opposition.

Looking through Mangol Bayat's 1991 book on the topic (OUP), some details can be found e.g. (p. 186)

Browne's correspondent, who had attended the festivities held in the majles, wrote enthusiastically about it. "It was truly a strange spectacle, and my mind went back to the same time last year . . . when those 12,000 refugees were encamped in the garden of the British Legation. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and it is no longer the people who require to take bast anywhere. As I stood there, looking around now at the tribune, with its strange medley of foreign representatives, Persian ministers and deputies, now at the seething crowd below shouting enthusiastically, 'Down with Despotism,' 'Long Live Freedom,' etc., my last doubt vanished . . . the National Assembly will triumph." He was especially moved by "the cry of the multitude. . . . 'Long Live the National Consultative Assembly of Persia.'" The exuberant British correspondent was prematurely optimistic.

Although the book doesn't give the Persian original for "Down with Despotism" (since the account is via a British correspondent), I suppose it's reasonable to assume it was using "marg bar [estebdad]". According to another account, an expression used at the time more literally spoke of the death of despotism ("marg-e estebdad") at least after the Constitutional Decree (royal proclamation) of 1906.

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The Ayatollah Khamenei, also the Supreme Leader of Iran, as reported by CNN, has said in a speech to university students six years aho:

The slogan 'death to America' is backed by reason and wisdom. And it goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation. This slogan means death to US policies, death to arrogance [...] and this logic is accepted by all nations when explained in clear terms.

These remarks were made on the eve of the 38th anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. Protestors, according to the state-run television station IRNA, marked the anniversary by burning US flags and making a statement that the US was Satan. The statement read:

We believe the US is the great Satan and we believe that fighting the arrogant powers is logical.

One is reminded here of President Bush's statement on his government's notion of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002, where he singled out Iran, the former Ba'athist Iraq, and North Korea.

It should be noted that the state media, IRIB, translates the words 'death to US' as 'down with the US'. For example, Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated this point in 2019 after a meeting with Army and Air Force commanders where he stated:

First of all, I am telling the Americans that 'down with the USA' means down with Trump, John Bolton and Pompeo. It means down with the American politicians in charge, who are currently represented by the aforementioned persons. 'Down with the USA' means down with the few who are running that country. We have no fight to pick with the people of the USA.

These words of Ayatollah Khamenei were literally translated by the New York Times to say:

Death to the USA means death to Trump, John Bolton and Pompeo

Given the context explained, this is a mistranslation and I expect the NYT know this. By retaining it, they are revealing their own political slant on Iran.

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  • If you view the choice of the New York Times to use the literal "death" in their articles as a mistranslation (i.e. it should be "down with Trump," not "death to Trump"), then why do you quote a translation of Khamenei's statements as "death to US policies, death to arrogance"? If "down with X" is a better translation—which I can buy—wouldn't Khamenei be saying that the statement means "down with America, down with arrogance"?
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 15 at 15:53
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    Wow, so I actually found a Twitter post by Khamenei with an image in English where he says "down with US" but "death to American policies, death to arrogance." Mind you, I still agree that "down with X" must be a better, more idiomatic translation, but it seems hard to sustain an unqualified assertion that the New York Times shows an anti-Iran political slant by choosing to translate what he says as "death to Trump" and so forth, unless Khamenei shows an anti-Iran bias by translating his own words as "death to arrogance" and so forth.
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 15 at 16:16
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    Wow, this is even more extraordinary. I actually found Ayatollah Khamenei's official web webpage in English (khamenei.ir). It surprised me that he had his own webpage, let alone in a foreign language. And look what he said: They complain why the Iranian nation says, “Death to America.” First of all, I should clarify this about American leaders: “Death to America” means “Death to Trump, John Bolton and Pompeo.” Death to these individuals means death to American leaders. We have nothing to do with the American people."
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 15 at 16:21
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    In other words, "death to Trump, John Bolton, and Pompeo" appears to be the translation that he himself chose, or at least approved (whether it is accurate is of course, quite another matter). It seems hard to fault the NYT for using Khamenei's own preferred wording.
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 15 at 16:22
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    @Obie 2.0: I understand your view, nevertheless I know for a fact that the NYT tried to cover up the war crimes committed in the USA. And also they weren't too keen on Mossadegh, the regime toppled via USA help. Is it so hard to understand that newspapers have particular views? Oct 15 at 17:06

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