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."