TEHRAN, Iran – Banners that suddenly cropped around Tehran in the past week depict an American diplomat dressed in a jacket and tie, while under the negotiating table he is wearing military pants and pointing a gun at an Iranian envoy.
The anti-American images were ordered taken down Saturday by Tehran authorities. But they made their point.
It was another salvo by hard-liners who are opposed to President Hassan Rouhani's pursuit of better ties with Washington and worried that Iran could make unnecessary concessions in its nuclear program in exchange for relief from Western sanctions.
The banners and posters were something of a warm-up to the main event: Rouhani's critics are planning major anti-U.S. rallies — and amped-up "Death to America" chants — on the Nov. 4 anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979 following the Islamic Revolution.
Anti-American murals have long been part of the urban landscape in Iran, and include images of the Statue of Liberty transformed into a creepy skeleton and bombs raining down from the Stars and Stripes. The storming of the U.S. Embassy is marked every year with protests outside the compound's brick walls.
Now, however, the images reflect internal divisions in Iran and suggest more intrigue ahead.
Rouhani's groundbreaking overtures to the U.S. appear to have the backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This means that — at least for the moment — he has the ultimate political cover to try to reach a nuclear deal and perhaps find other ways to cross the 34-year diplomatic no man's land between the countries.
However, the criticism and protests by hard-line resisters, led by the Revolutionary Guard, are as much directed at Rouhani's government as they are intended as a message for the supreme leader.
The Guard and others know that Khamenei does not want to risk an open confrontation that could sow further discord in Iran. The subtext of the posters and banners: More pressure could come if Rouhani's government is perceived as moving too fast toward concessions when nuclear talks resume next week in Geneva with the U.S. and other world powers.
The signs had an ad-agency quality that is rare compared with the usual anti-American fare of simple fliers and hand-lettered placards.
"American Honesty," read one in Farsi and slightly mangled English, showing the U.S. negotiator with the gun under the table.
Another depicted an American negotiator in a suit, a black attack dog by his side. The third one showed an open hand facing the open claws of what appeared to be an eagle, the symbol of the U.S.
On Sunday, with most of the images taken down, new posters popped up around Tehran. They contained just one sentence, in Farsi: "We don't oppress and don't allow to be oppressed."
The high production values of the banners and posters suggest possible connections to the powerful propaganda machinery of well-funded groups such as the Revolutionary Guard or its nationwide paramilitary network, known as the Basij.
Mohsen Pirhadi, head of Basij's Tehran branch, said he ordered the posters put up, but gave no further details on the designers or financial backers.
"These posters were in line with the interests of the (ruling) system," the Bahar newspaper quoted him as saying Saturday.
A day earlier, protesters trampled posters of Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator with Iran, who said earlier this month that past experience suggests "deception is part of the DNA" of the nuclear talks. Iran's hard-line media, however, added "Iranian" to the quote and stirred outrage.
"Our people have seen nothing but dishonesty, deception of public opinion, betrayal and back-stabbing by Americans during the past years. ... Therefore, there is no way they can trust American promises and deceiving smiles," hard-line politician Hamid Reza Taraqi told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Israel and others suspicious of Iran have used similar language to question Rouhani's sincerity.
A conservative lawmaker, Hamid Rasaei, decried the order to take down the posters and banners. "Why is a group seeking to erase the 34-year-old honor of the Iranian nation?" he told Parliament on Sunday.
A moderate lawmaker, Mohammad Javad Kowlivand, demanded a probe into the U.S.-bashing campaign.
Political analyst Hamid Reza Shokouhi said opposition to Rouhani's outreach reflects the insecurities that come with any bold diplomatic gestures.
"Public opinion cannot easily digest that everything has suddenly changed," he said.