TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — President Hassan Rouhani called Tuesday for "fair and constructive" nuclear talks with world powers as Iran marked the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution with massive rallies that featured a new American target for their traditional "death to" slogans.
Besides the usual chants of "Down with the U.S.!" and "Death to Israel!" many demonstrators took aim at Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, who has frequently led U.S. delegations in nuclear talks with Tehran.
"Death to Sherman!" the crowd shouted — the first time that an undersecretary of state has been the target of invectives that are usually reserved for American presidents and occasionally U.S. secretaries of state.
Iranian hard-liners, state TV and many Iranian lawmakers have been fuming over remarks Sherman made last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which she noted that the Iranian government had distributed food to the poor after the U.S. released the first $550 million payment as part of an interim agreement struck last year over the country's nuclear program.
"Iran has visibly just provided food to those in their society that are poor as a way of demonstrating quite directly that this limited, targeted and temporary sanctions release has a direct impact on the people in the country," Sherman told lawmakers. Her remarks came in response to concerns that the money might be used to support Hezbollah militants in Syria.
On Tehran's streets Tuesday, demonstrators reacted with anger. "We are not beggars," fumed Masoumeh Shafiei, adding that she would never forgive such an insult. "How dare Sherman comment on Iranians' domestic issues," said another demonstrator, Rahim Akbari. "This is our money that world powers kept for years, unfairly."
Last week, the Iranian government began distributing free food to poor people in an effort to reduce inflation, which now stands at 35 percent, down from 43 percent in August, when Rouhani came to power. The food distribution program was initiated under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but was limited to government staff.
During Tuesday's rallies, the crowd burned American and Israeli flags with pictures of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — moves that are commonplace at most Iranian rallies, but now come against the backdrop of Rouhani's policy of outreach to the West.
Speaking to hundreds of thousands gathered in Tehran's Azadi, or Liberty, Square, to mark the 35th anniversary of the revolution that brought Islamists to power, Rouhani said the nuclear talks must be "based on good intentions and peacefulness," and dismissed any perception of military threats against Iran.
"If some have the illusion that there is a threat against the Iranian nation on the table, we say they need new eyeglasses," Rouhani said. "Iran is determined to hold fair and constructive talks within the framework of international regulations and we hope to see such an intention on the other side as well," he added.
Rouhani's appeal comes ahead of next week's talks between Iran and six world powers seeking to eliminate fears that Tehran may use its nuclear programs to make atomic weapons. Both sides are to meet on Feb. 18 in Vienna to try to translate the landmark interim deal struck in November into a permanent agreement.
Under the interim agreement, Iran agreed to cap its controversial uranium enrichment program in return for the easing of some sanctions by the West. The interim accord is supposed to last for six months as Iran and the six-nation group — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — negotiate a final deal.
The U.S. and Israel have said in the past that they do not rule out a military option against Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects masks effort to make nuclear arms. Iran denies the charge, insisting the program is for peaceful purposes only, such as power generation and medical treatments.
On Tuesday, Rouhani reiterated that "there is no military threat against the Iranian nation," adding that his country's path "toward the peak of progress, science and technology, including peaceful nuclear technology, will be continuous."