Iran is full of remarkable architecture, of the sort that makes geologists, archeologists, historians, and theologians around the world marvel. Whether it is a spectacular mosque built in such a way that the afternoon sun glistens the image of a golden peacock upon its already tile-embroidered ceiling, a traditional tea house alight with the arches and stained glass windows of another millennia, a pavilion architecturally designed to be an object of pleasure, an enchanted fertile garden with beauty that inspired the Taj Mahal, or contemporary high rises (Tehran has 2,877 of them, that is more than twice Chicago’s, Persian architecture has "some of the most majestic structures the world has ever seen.”
Unfortunately, however, these marvels are not the only noteworthy components of Iranian architecture. It is impossible, as one walks through the streets of Tehran for example, to not notice the totalitarian style prisons and courthouses. The constant and ever present images of “Big Brothers”: the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Iran’s first Supreme Leader following the 1979 revolution), and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the Supreme Leader who succeeded Khomeini after his death). Frightening and prolific posters, paintings and billboards of these men, looking at you as if they are watching your every move, are intended to foster a culture and environment of fear and submission.
Since the revolution, there was another component of Iran’s architecture that was copious and conspicuous – “DEATH TO AMERICA.” The phrase was on signs and billboards. It was graphitized onto the walls. It was every where. At times, it was accompanied with its lesser chanted “Death to Israel,” “Death to England,” and particularly during the Iran/Iraq war which killed a million people in the 80's, “Death to Iraq.”
While the Persian marvels of architecture and the oppressive court-houses and prisons with the Big Brother images still remain, the "Death to America" element of Iranian architecture is now missing
There is no more “Death to America.”
“There are no signs,” said Mahrab (not her real name), a recent visitor who asked that we protect her identity in exchange for her eye witness accounts for this piece. “No billboards, no posters. Not even any graffiti! I didn’t see any the whole time I was in Tehran.” She was there for nearly 20 days. “They came through and painted over all the graffiti about a year ago.”
“We don’t really chant it in school that much anymore,” said Shirin, another young lady who asked her identity remain hidden and who we interviewed in writing through the WhatsApp smartphone application. “Sometimes they do, but it’s not structured the way it was before. Not a core of what we do. It’s changing.”
The question is, why? What is changing? Removing posters and painting over graffiti is most certainly the job of the Iranian government itself. It could not have been all that easy, or all that inexpensive. And it is clearly not intended as a propaganda tool for the consumption of Western audiences. Indeed, no other news agency has reported this dramatic change, and this reporter would not have been aware of it were it not for the eye witness accounts. It was done quietly, and without much fanfare.
The recent cooperation in the region between Iran and the United States (as supported by some though not all of Iran or the United States’ leaders) in their joint battle against ISIS, indicates that the graffiti removal is a soft way of setting the domestic stage for improved relations with the west, and particularly with the United States.
Removing graffiti is not a magic pill that will fix decades of hostility and mistrust between two nations. But it is concrete, real, and just as significant as putting the graffiti up in the first instance. One can only hope that this is the start of advanced relations between the two nations, and greater stability in the Middle East.
At a minimum, it is a gesture, and one that is meaningful.