In an ever escalating competition of appropriation, Iranians are finding new and clever ways to turn the Revolution inside out. Most compelling of all is the exquisitely subversive “Death to Russia!” and its companion “Death to China!” “Marq bar Russi-e! Marq bar Chin!” For 30 years, ever since the Revolution, Iranians have been chanting “Death to America!” with the regime’s encouragement. It has long been a convenient outlet for any domestic discontent. Somehow the protesters have collectively decided that from now on, the U.S. will be left alone, all chants against that nation must cease. “Death to Russia” has become the new “Death to America.”
At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. After all, Russia and China are major patrons of the current regime, the protesters despise the current regime, and therefore they direct their contempt of their own government at its foreign backers as well. The protesters have been frustrated and stymied, so it is natural that they are venting their frustration in a variety of ways. This was more or less how the “Death to America” slogan started off before it turned into nothing more than an empty phrase to be dutifully repeated by regime loyalists to demonstrate their support. As every anti-Iranian voice in the West is so keen to remind us, this anti-American element became a major part of the revolutionary regime’s self-presentation. Almost as if the Iranian protesters want to confirm that their movement is like other “color” revolutions throughout Europe and Asia, they are now adopting anti-Russianism.
Internationally, these new slogans might win the protesters a little more sympathy in the West (if there is any more sympathy left for them to win). Nothing seems to bring out Western enthusiasm for foreign protesters like their expression of anti-Russian sentiment. That said, however understandable these outbursts are they seem extraordinarily ill-conceived. Russia and China obviously accept the status quo in Iran and so have no desire to aid the protesters, but until now they have not necessarily had any reason to fear that the success of the protesters threatened their interests in any way. The protests were the result of a domestic, internal dispute between the regime and dissidents, and foreign policy considerations were marginal at best–this was all to the advantage of the protesters. Now the protesters seem to be getting too “exquisitely subversive” for their own good. So long as they can wield the regime’s official rhetoric against it, appropriate the symbols and language of the revolution and Shi’ism for their own cause, and hold themselves up as the real defenders of the revolutionary legacy, the protesters have a better chance of getting at least some of what they want. Once they begin to dissociate themselves from that legacy, and then make a point of dropping the traditional anti-American rhetoric to replace it with a challenge to Iran’s current patrons, they are making themselves appear more like the front for an American agenda and are therefore reducing their chances of success.
Moscow especially loathes “color” revolutions because they have more often than not been explicitly anti-Russian in their focus, much as Washington finds populist movements in Latin America obnoxious because of their emphasis on opposition to U.S. influence in the region, but even in the “color” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia Moscow’s acquiescence in the change of government was an important factor in resolving both crises. If the protesters make anti-Russian and anti-Chinese sentiment a significant part of their movement, they can be sure not only that these powers will do nothing to curb the regime in the event that it cracks down more severely but also that these powers will actively work to sabotage their movement any way they can.