American flags burned as 10,000 Iranians protest on US Embassy siege anniversary


TEHRAN -- At least 10,000 Iranians protested outside the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran Monday, burning American flags and effigies of Barack Obama on the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the building.

Annual demonstrations take place at the site, marking the date on which activists stormed the embassy 34 years ago and took 52 staff hostage for 444 days -- an act that severed diplomatic ties with the U.S. for more than three decades.

But this year’s demonstration was larger than usual, fueled by anger among Iranians at President Hassan Rouhani's recent moves to reopen dialogue with the West.

The crowd comprised mainly students and old revolutionaries from 1979, with equal numbers of men and women. It was at least ten times bigger than in previous years.

The air was thick with smoke as countless U.S. and Israeli flags went up in flames, accompanied by chants of "death to America" and the waving of anti-U.S. banners.

Reporters were issued with press credentials marked with the phrase "down with U.S.A."

Several protesters told NBC News they were taking part because they did not trust the U.S. and did not want Iran to do a deal with its arch-enemy.

The sentiment follows Rouhani presenting a far more moderate approach to international relations than his predecessor, the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani broke the 34-year diplomatic silence between Iran and the U.S. with a 15-minute telephone call to Obama after the U.N. general assembly in September. It followed an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Ann Curry in which Rouhani said: "We are not seeking ... and looking for war with any nations. We are seeking peace and stability among all the nations in the region.”

The Iranian president also wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he declared an end to "the age of blood feuds," adding: "World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities."

This approach has been applauded by many Iranians, but Monday’s protests were not the first occasion Rouhani has been criticized for his perceived warming to the country Iran used to call "the Great Satan."

Iranian demonstrators burn US and Israeli flags during a demonstration Monday. Abedin Tahrkenareh / EPA

On his return from the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Rouhani was met with a large crowd of supporters in Tehran. Others, however, booed him and pelted his car with eggs, tomatoes and shoes.

On Sunday, Iran’s most powerful public figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a speech backing the country’s nuclear negotiators. This was an apparent warning to hardliners not to accuse Rouhani of compromising with its old enemy, Reuters reported.

"No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers," Khamenei said, according to the news agency. "They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work."

On Saturday, an editorial by conservative newspaper Kayhan warned against trusting the U.S. in current nuclear negotiations, Reuters said. The editorial said there were signs that "the Americans are aiming to trick the Islamic Republic" in the next round of talks this week.

Reuters contributed to this report. Alexander Smith reported from London.