TEHRAN, Iran – Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of the capital Tehran on Friday, condemning President Bush for criticizing their government and chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Bush."
State-run radio and television called on people to demonstrate against the United States and rally behind their government after Bush's statement last week in which he denounced Iran's "uncompromising, destructive policies" and expressed American support for the reform movement.
The demonstrators, many of them families, marched under a scorching sun in front of downtown Tehran University. They chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Bush" and burned the effigies of Uncle Sam and the U.S. president.
"America cannot do a damn thing against Iran," read one of the banners. "The great Satan is not able to harm Iranians," read another, in reference to the United States.
The street march was the latest in what has been a furious backlash against Bush's statement a week ago, which was seen -- including by some reformers -- as meddling in Iran's bitter power struggle between reformers and hard-liners trying to prevent change in the Islamic regime.
Many reformers fear that statements of support from the United States -- seen as Iran's worst enemy -- could hurt their cause. Iranians have also resented Bush's past comments branding their country part of an "axis of evil."
Among those taking part in Friday's protest were former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref; the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi; and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.
"I think that today's massive rally is the best response to Mr. Bush to make him understand that interfering in Iran's domestic affairs will bring about a strong reaction from the people," Kharrazi said.
The march ended with a Friday prayer at Tehran University, in which Rafsanjani urged worshippers to be alert to the "cruel and powerful" U.S. government.
A statement issued at the rally said the Iranians will not come to terms with the United States "even for a single moment," and accused Washington of supporting "global terrorism" and engaging in interventionist policies, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Some in the reform movement have advocated rebuilding ties with the United States -- cut since the 1979 hostage crisis. But hard-liners, who control the main levers of power, have ruled out any such move. They have also tried to prevent political and social changes in the Islamic government demanded by reformers.
Last week, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri stepped down as mosque preacher in the southern city of Isfahan, denouncing hard-liners for stifling change. Reform leaders immediately announced their support for him, and more than 140 Iranians were reportedly arrested for leading a march in his support, despite a ban on demonstrations.
On July 11, the White House issued a statement from Bush saying, "As we have witnessed over the past few days, the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights and opportunities as people around the world. ... Their government should listen to their hopes."
Amid the uproar over Bush's comments, Taheri issued a statement softening his attack on conservatives, after Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reminded the cleric of the possible consequences of challenging the system.
America cut diplomatic relations with Iran after militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. There have been no public contacts between the governments since, but relations showed signs of improvement following the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997.