The Iran Hostage Crisis
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Nowadays the grand old U.S. embassy in Tehran looks forlorn, like a hostage left behind and long forgotten. A solid battleship of an office building in orange brick, two stories high and more than a block long, it was once the symbol of America's formidable presence in Iran. Today it still stands in the heart of the capital, facing a wide, busy thoroughfare called Taleghani Avenue, at the front of a leafy twenty-seven-acre oasis, a rare haven from the noisy hustle of this city of more than 12 million. Long ago dubbed the "Den of Spies" by Islamic radicals, the old embassy building is now garishly covered with anti-American graffiti, banners, and propaganda displays to remind people of the nation's undying disdain for its once favorite ally. The embassy compound is home to the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military unit that reports to the black-turbaned clerics of Iran's authoritarian mullahocracy, and to the basij, Islamic brownshirts, the civilian goon squads that turn out en masse and at a moment's notice to demonstrate on behalf of the regime and to help put down those who engage in public displays of dissent and "immorality," such as women whose scarves do not fully cover their hair, or young people who hold hands. The former embassy itself serves as an anti-American museum, with a grim, ugly permanent display called "The Great Aban 13th Exhibition," commemorating one of the most important dates on the modern Iranian calendar. Aban 13 corresponds to November 4, the date on which, twenty-five years ago, scores of Iranian students scaled the compound walls and took hostage the entire U.S. diplomatic mission, setting off a tense fifteen-month standoff between the United States and Iran. It was one of the founding events of the Islamic Republic, and its geopolitical repercussions are still being felt throughout the world.
The old embassy is supposed to be an official shrine to that bold act of national defiance, which defined for the world the glorious 1979 revolution, a kind of Iranian counterpart to America's Boston Tea Party—but more central and significant. Yet in the four times I went to the embassy during trips to Iran in the past year, it was empty of visitors. A bookstore just outside the entrance, which was once known for selling anti-American literature and reprints of the thousands of secret embassy documents seized in the takeover (the infamous "spy den documents"), was vacant when I first saw it in December, its racks empty, but nine months later appeared ready to reopen as a bookstore for children. The slogans and spiteful artwork that had been spray-painted on the embassy's brick outer walls by angry crowds during the tumultuous hostage crisis had faded—including an image of the Statue of Liberty with its face portrayed as a death mask and a sign in English that said "DEATH TO THE USA."
Even the guardhouse on the southeast corner, where visitors enter, was in shambles. Two friendly, unshaven Revolutionary Guards stood behind the counter in a small, marble-veneered reception area that looked like a frat house on Sunday morning, with battered furniture, an old swivel chair leaning precariously on its stem with cushion stuffing hanging out, dirt caked on the floors and walls, and muddy boot prints everywhere. I pointed quizzically at a boot print on the ceiling, and asked my guide and interpreter, Ramin, to tell the guards that as an American citizen, I protested these abuses of what could arguably be called U.S. property.
"Tell them that if they are going to steal it, the least they could do is take care of it," I said.
When Ramin relayed my comments, the guards laughed, looked around sheepishly at the mess, and shrugged happily. They were conscripts serving out the last few months of their duty at a gravy post. "It's great here," one said. "Nothing ever happens."
The exhibit itself is amateurish, as if put together by a group of high school students with a bad attitude. On the front steps are two cartoonish statues that appear to have been fashioned from papier-mâché and thickly painted over in bronze. The first—seemingly based on a photograph of one of the hostages, Corporal Steven Kirtley—is of a Marine surrendering with his hands clasped behind his head; the second is a replica of the Statue of Liberty with a white bird (a symbol of Islam) caged in her abdomen. Inside the museum is more of the same: displays illustrating America's "role of evil" in the world over the past several decades; lots of gory photographs of children presented as victims of American bombings; and a framed copy of an important-looking "spy document," impressively stamped Classified and Top Secret, which on closer inspection turns out to be a memo requesting additional drivers for the embassy's motor pool. There are also pieces of helicopters recovered in the Iranian desert from a failed U.S. secret mission on April 24, 1980, to rescue the hostages; photographs of the hostages themselves; and somewhat dated propaganda showcasing America and Saddam Hussein as partners in crime. But in its preoccupation with American symbols the exhibit is more a defacement than an indictment, like drawing a big nose and a moustache on a poster of someone famous. That such a gloating, adolescent display has endured in the heart of Tehran for a quarter century says more about Iran than it does about the United States.
For a visiting American, Iran is like Bizarro World, the mirror universe in Superman comics in which everything is inverted. Bad is good and good is bad. In Tehran patriotic symbols of the United States are everywhere, but always wrenched into images of violence, evil, and defeat. The American flag is shown in the shape of a gun; the bald eagle is shown going down in flames. In the West we are bombarded with advertising images of youth, beauty, sex, and life; in Tehran the preponderance of advertising images celebrate death. There are murals everywhere honoring martyrs—primarily those who died in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, in the 1980s, but also more recent Islamic martyrs, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who was assassinated by Israeli forces in Gaza earlier this year. Billboards in the West often feature scantily dressed, provocatively posed teens, but in Tehran the gigantic wall murals tend to depict robed grandpas and grumpy-looking white-bearded clerics—especially common are the bespectacled face of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the more imposing, threatening visage of the late Imam, Ruhollah Khomeini, the major force behind the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and the father of Iran's theocratic state.
This Bizarro World feeling is pervasive. In August, when I left on one of my visits to Iran, a media blitz at home was trumpeting a more or less nonstop parade of American triumphs in the Olympic Games in Greece. Days later in Tehran the popular press was heralding a humiliating cascade of U.S. defeats. The Tehran Times reported an "anguished reaction" in Washington, D.C., over the three losses of the men's basketball team and its failure to win a gold medal (it won bronze), and when the American boxer Andre Ward advanced toward a gold medal, it ran the headline "SAVES U.S. TEAM FROM HISTORIC FAILURE." Coverage of the fighting in Iraq cheers savage insurgent violence there, and portrays the Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani—not the U.S. and British armies that actually toppled the tyrant Saddam Hussein—as the real force for democracy and independence.