An attempt by Iran's reformist president Hassan Rouhani to abolish the chant "Death to America" as part of his diplomatic drive to improve relations with the West, has prompted an angry response from his country's hardline establishment.
The slogan, "Marg bar Amrika" in Farsi, has been heard at official occasions in Tehran since the country's Islamic revolution in 1979, which was born during the seizure by students of the US embassy and the 444-day hostage crisis that followed. Beloved by hardliners, it became one of the unifying political messages of the regime and would be broadcast every Friday on national television and echoed at mosques after Friday prayers.
A national debate on the use of the chant began last month when reformist prayer leaders at the main Friday afternoon ceremonies in Tehran and other major cities told the congregations to hold their tongues. Since it no longer fits easily with the official outlook of a country whose president has telephone conversations with President Barack Obama and wants economic sanctions lifted, there is a drive by Rouhani and his allies to end its public use.
"We can stand against powers with prudence rather than with slogans," Mr Rouhani said recently. He won the backing of the most senior cleric in the city of Isfahan who called for a ban on the chant. "Death to America is not a verse in the holy book of Koran and there is no logic in chanting it for ever," Sheikh Mohammad Taghi Rahbar told the Ghanoon daily newspaper.
"Just like the slogan of Death to Soviet Union that we used to chant in the old days, this chant of Death to the US can be removed from our political gatherings." Ahmad Khatami, a noted hardliner and leading ayatollah, publicly rebelled against the move. "As long as there is American evil in the world, this slogan will endure across the nation," he said. The country's former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key supporter of Rouhani's attempts to achieve detente with the West, was sharply criticised after he said the chant was harmful to Iran's national interests.
Hardliners accused him of "distorting" the "anti-American legacy" of Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah. The Centre for Preservation of Imam Khomeini's Legacies, a high-profile religious institution based in the holy city of Qom, condemned Rafsanjani's comments.
A former MP gave voice to the irritation many feel. "Death to America has been the symbol of our freedom movement since the inception of Islamic Revolution," said Emad Forough. "However, if we are forced to become pragmatist and abandon it, let's not pretend that this chalice of poison is a cup of honey."