Shock in Iran as professor refuses to trample US flag

Screen grab from one of the videos (see below).
Screen grab from one of the videos (see below).

Every November 4, Iran’s hardliners celebrate the date of the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, which lasted 444 days. On this occasion, they hold anti-American demonstrations, where they shout slogans like “Death to America” and burn US and Israeli flags. But this year, a professor refused to trample on the flags. A video of his defiant act rapidly went viral.

Last Friday, the flags of the two countries were laid out on the floor in the political science department of the University of Mashhad, so that professors and students could trample them. But Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor visiting from Tehran, decided to go against the authorities’ wishes, and walks around the flags – not once but twice. His refusal was caught on camera.

The first video shows the Israeli flag at the entrance to the university, and Zibakalam stepping around it.

He has more trouble with the US flag, because university personnel have blocked his route to avoid walking on it. However, he doesn’t give in, and pushes them out of his way in order to avoid stepping on the flag.

Many Iranians saluted his rebellious act on social media. But others, including officials and conservative media, were furious. One newspaper called for the man they described as a “supporter of the child-killing Zionist regime” to be fired from his university.

Zibakalam is well known for his pro-US positions. He is regularly attacked by politicians and conservative media for his criticisms of Iran’s stance on the United States. In 2014, was even arrested and handed a one-year jail sentence after he said that the Iranian nuclear programme was “useless and a waste of money”. However, he was never sent to jail. This was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate him into silence – but if this was the idea, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

"The 80s discourse of the 'Great Satan' seems far off"

Maral (not her real name) is a journalist in Iran. She says that Zibakalam’s actions show that the image of the United States has changed a lot over the past years.

These videos may cause Zibakalam quite a lot of trouble, especially if they inspire others to follow his example.

The ideology of the Islamic revolution placed Iran in opposition to all the “superpowers”, notably the United States. But four decades later, this discourse is less and less attractive to Iran’s population, because many people feel that the regime has not fulfilled its promises of economic and social justice. More and more people are criticising this anti-American ideology, and not just among the elite. In reaction to the authorities’ anti-American discourse, a pro-American sentiment is gaining ground.

In the past years, moderate politicians started to make distinctions between the US government and its people, and then even started to distinguish between “good” and “bad” American politicians. Even the Supreme Leader has toned down his language, and now says the United States are “not trustworthy”. The 80s discourse about the “Great Satan” is now quite far off. This context has encouraged some Iranians to more openly express their sympathy toward the United States.

However, many Iranians were quite negatively impacted by the United States’ sanctions on Iran and are still angry about that. Moreover, the vicious presidential campaigning hurt the United States’ image as an enviable model for society. And Donald Trump’s victory may further hurt its image.