TEHRAN -- With the believers pouring out of the Friday Prayer site in Tehran, Ali Akbar and his friends sprang into action, hastily spreading posters of the American flag on the asphalt and switching on their megaphone.
"Death to America!" one of them yelled through the loudspeaker, as others urged the middle-aged men leaving the prayer grounds to stomp on the American flags. "Death to America!" the men shouted back, with a certain casualness that betrayed decades of uttering Iran's most important revolutionary slogan.
As Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, steers the country away from its confrontational posture toward the West, he is inevitably calling into question the bedrock anti-American ideology of the Islamic republic. That is turning the revolution's leading slogan, "Death to America," into a political battleground.
"These three words are the blood of our ideology," said one of those leaving Friday Prayer, Mohammad Jahanbi. He said he had been a political prisoner during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and was a veteran of the bloody eight-year war with Iraq. "We must hold on to 'Death to America'; otherwise, our revolution will be lost."
But the current government has been calling for reasoned actions rather than slogans. "We can stand against powers with prudence rather than with slogans," Mr. Rouhani said recently.
The issue gained prominence recently when the personal Web site of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who is close to the new government, published his older memoirs. Mr. Rafsanjani had indicated that the founder of the Islamic republic, his mentor and revolutionary comrade Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had once hinted that "Death to America" could be eliminated if the conditions were right, just as relations could be re-established, if needed.
Mr. Rafsanjani was immediately attacked in hard-line newspapers, and state-run television broadcast a long program countering his claims, accusing "some" of insinuating the idea of duality in the stances of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Rafsanjani issued an apology.
The affair quickly blew over, but it underscored the hard-liners' fears about the warming relations between Iran and the West, not to speak of an ultimate normalization. While they officially support the current nuclear talks between the government and representatives of the "great Satan," hard-liners are worried that Mr. Rouhani's outreach could change Iran's rigid political landscape beyond recognition.
After all, some have said, "Death to America" could be eliminated from the revolutionary discourse just as surely as "Death to the Soviet Union" was a generation ago.
And so they marched, a couple of hundred people in this capital of 12 million. American flags were burned, children waved portraits of President Obama with Dracula-like fangs, and security officers holding walkie-talkies tried to look inconspicuous.
While many, if not most, Iranians in the capital scoff at the "Death to America" crowd, anti-Americanism remains an important part of the Islamic republic's ideology and legitimacy.
The state television program that criticized Mr. Rafsanjani cited a passage from the last will and testament of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989. "The U.S.A. is the foremost enemy of Islam," it said. "It is a terrorist state by nature that has set fire to everything everywhere, and its ally, the international Zionism, does not stop short of any crime to achieve its base and greedy desires, crimes that the tongue and pen are ashamed to utter or write."
The state news media give prominence to anti-American demonstrations, like a well-orchestrated outburst recently among Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This week, state television showed believers during Id al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, who would almost not stop shouting "Death to America."
Mr. Rouhani's government has announced that it wants to conduct a public opinion survey on the advisability of its outreach to the United States. But it is unclear if this will happen, analysts say, because it would lay bare the ideological divisions in the Islamic republic.
A similar poll conducted in 2003 showed that 70 percent favored establishing ties with America. There was no follow-up, though, because the pollsters were jailed for several years.
In the Islamic republic, support of "the people" is often cited by all factions. But with the animosity toward the United States, things can get complicated. A majority of the Iranian electorate voted for Mr. Rouhani and his conciliatory international polices, while the revolutionary narrative prescribes that the fight against America is eternal and supported by all Iranians.
At the demonstration on Friday, the script played out like clockwork, as it has for the past three decades. About two dozen protesters worked themselves into a frenzy, and domestic and international camera teams and photographers zoomed in as the demonstrators set fire to an American flag.
As black smoke filled the air, they pumped their fists and let out a lusty "Death to America."
An older man, wearing a black skullcap, a sign that he had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, dragged a plastic poster showing Mr. Obama decorated with Stars of David and the word "oppressor." As he was about to throw it on the fire, one of the young organizers of the demonstration stopped him.
"Don't burn this," he said. "We paid for this poster with public money. We need to use it for a very long time to come."
Correction: October 19, 2013, Saturday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the Web site that published former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's memoirs. It was Mr. Rafsanjani's personal Web site, not the personal Web site of a hard-line general.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 20, 2013 2:01 PM