Once a 'Den of Spies,' Now Museum Piece

By Erdbrink, Thomas | International Herald Tribune, November 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Once a 'Den of Spies,' Now Museum Piece


Erdbrink, Thomas, International Herald Tribune


Foreign journalists were allowed a rare peek inside the compound, once the center of American power in Iran, in anticipation of the Nov. 4 anniversary of the 1979 hostage taking of 52 Americans.

Dusty and dilapidated, dwarfed by the modern high-rises of the Iranian capital, the former United States Embassy building stands like a rotting tooth in a vast compound in the center of Tehran.

A dirty doormat with the words "Down with USA" spray-painted on it lies at the entrance of what was once the center of American power in Iran. A foam statue, painted bronze, of a United States Marine surrendering to Iranian students stands next to the gate.

Called "the den of spies," the embassy is surrounded by high brown concrete walls topped by a rusting white fence. Inside, the bright yellow carpeting in the secret communication room has not been changed since radical Islamic students overran the building in the 1979 revolution, took 52 Americans hostage and held them for 444 days.

Dusty circuit boards and black Bakelite phone sets once taken from the Americans have been returned and put on display, museum relics to the current occupants -- young smartphone-wielding paramilitaries, the basiji, who have a base on the compound.

Foreign journalists were allowed a rare peek inside the compound on Thursday, in anticipation of the Nov. 4 anniversary of the 1979 hostage taking. The day will be celebrated with state organized rallies where "Death to America" will, as always, be the main slogan.

"Before that moment, it was the U.S. who dictated the history of nations," said Mohmmad Reza Soghigi, who guided the foreign reporters around. "After the takeover it was Iran that dictated the history of the U.S."

For Iranian hard-liners the embassy compound is a symbol of the lasting power of the Iranian revolution. But the atmosphere in Tehran has shifted since the reformist Hassan Rouhani succeeded his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the country's president. For many here, the embassy is a relic that is long past its sell-by date.

"All this stuff is old," Mehdi Zohari, a 31-year-old electrician and Basij member, said in stilted English. "Maybe it's time we forgot about all of this."

Drinking tea in the compound's rose-lined garden and sitting in a plastic chair, Mr. Soghigi, a basiji member himself, was in no mood to forget. He flipped through the pages of a book, "The Crippled Giant," written after the revolution to document the fading power of the United States.

"Did you know that one in two marriages in the U.S. ends in divorce?" Mr. Soghigi asked, pointing at the book, by a well-known Iranian writer, Ahmad Toloie. "It is a paradise for criminals, but poor people have to live on the streets over there. This is interesting stuff."

In the distance the honking of Tehran's ever-busy traffic filled the air as Mr. Soghigi, wearing a brown suit, took a reporter by the arm and showed him rows and rows of posters lauding Iranian achievements.

"Did you know Iran is the fifth-largest producer in the world of blood-clotting medicine?" he asked. "We are. Just as we are the third-biggest when it comes to turning gas into liquid fuel."

Iran had prospered after the revolution and the embassy takeover, but the United States had only gone further downhill, Mr. Soghigi argued.

"Now look at the U.S.," he said walking past yet another row of posters, these showing American "crimes" in Iraq, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile and many other countries. …

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