Near the hometown of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, workers at a small Iranian factory diligently add all 50 stars and 13 red-and-white bars to what are supposed to be U.S. flags, and carefully imprint the blue Star of David on Israeli ones.
That’s even as all their work is destined to go up in flames.
The company Diba Parcham Khomein serves as a major producer for the American and Israeli flags constantly burned at pro-government rallies in the Islamic Republic. Such flag-burnings are a sign of support for Iran’s embattled clerical rulers and a throwback to the iconic images of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that branded the U.S. Iran’s greatest foe and the “Great Satan.”
Another batch of flags is being prepared for the 41st anniversary of the Iranian revolution on Tuesday. The celebrations will take on special symbolic importance amid renewed tensions with Washington after a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, last month.
Yet the factory’s owner, like many middle-class Iranians, holds out hopes for better relations between Tehran and the U.S.
“I hope there is a day that the flags we produce are presented as a gift,” factory owner Abolfazl Khanjani told The Associated Press.
That day, however, has yet to come to Khomein, a city best known as the birthplace of the Islamic Republic’s founder.
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The factory itself is in the nearby suburban village of Heshmatieh, where staffers first dye the blue canton containing the 50 white stars of the American flag on linen before dyeing its seven red stripes.
The flags then hang to dry in the factory. As Iran does not recognize Israel as a country, the factory adds “Death to Israel,” written in Farsi on those flags, workers said. Iran itself continues to support anti-Israeli militant groups like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Diba Parcham Khomein produces 1.5 million flags a year, many bearing Islamic phrases for religious and official occasions across the country. The factory also makes Iranian flags and a small number of Iraqi national flags for export.
But on a recent visit by the AP, the American and Israeli flags stood out, each 1.5 meters by 1 meter (59 inches by 39 inches). The factory makes as many as 6,000 American, British and Israeli flags in a year, all destined to be passed onto retailers. Iranian political hard-liners then purchase them for around $2 apiece to be stomped on, torn and ultimately set ablaze.
“In recent years, the production of the U.S. flags has been tripled,” Khanjani said. “What eventually happens to my products is on its end user.”
Khanjani, 36, identifies himself as supporting Iranian reformist groups that want to slowly change, and open up, the Islamic Republic. But he acknowledged the anger hard-liners feel toward the U.S. Tensions have particularly been high since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.
In the time since, regional tensions across the Mideast have steadily worsened, leading to the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Soleimani as he was leaving Baghdad’s international airport.
Smiling images of Soleimani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ai Khamenei appeared on small Iranian flags in the factory, hanging behind women working at sewing machines on American flags.
Khanjani said burning the American flag offered Iranians a direct way to express their anger at U.S. policies, including the economic sanctions now choking the country.
“Does the production of U.S. flags for burning pose any danger to anyone? Does it hurt anyone? My answer is no. It is an insult at worst,” he said. “But what about the production of weapons, bombs and drones for terror that have been used against our people and our country’s general? Has it not harmed my country?”
That was a sentiment shared by Khanjani’s sister Azam, who also works at the factory.
“The martyrdom of our general was a big torment for us and this year as I sewed every flag, I was excited that they were going to be burned,” she said. “My feeling is just hatred when I sew them. It does not give me a good feeling.”
Parisa Mahmoudi, another worker, said she focused her anger on Trump while working.
“I have no problem with the American people but I dislike their president,” she said. “We have no problem with anyone but do not know why he is hostile with us.”
The factory has 40 workers, including 25 women from nearby villages who earn monthly salaries of up to $400. Khanjani declined to offer earnings information for the factory, but said it turns a single-digit profit yearly.
Despite expressing anger at U.S. policies, Khanjani said his factory’s decision to supply the flags for burning is a business move, fulfilling a demand from consumers. He showed AP journalists a picture painted by his 8-year-old son, Aria, showing the flags of Iran and the U.S. next to each country’s president.
The caption for the painting reads: “The president of the U.S. has shaken the hand of Iranian president and they have become friends.”