A Symbol of Power, and a Dusty Old Relic ; Former U.S. Embassy in Tehran Now Houses a Militia and a Museum

By Erdbrink, Thomas | International Herald Tribune, November 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Symbol of Power, and a Dusty Old Relic ; Former U.S. Embassy in Tehran Now Houses a Militia and a Museum


Erdbrink, Thomas, International Herald Tribune


For Iranian hard-liners, the compound where 66 Americans were taken hostage in 1979 is a symbol of Iran's power. To others, it is a relic.

Dusty and dilapidated, dwarfed by the modern high-rises of the Iranian capital, the former United States Embassy building stands in a vast compound in the center of Tehran, a forlorn symbol of what increasingly seems like a bygone era here.

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 is next to the gate.

Known here as "the den of spies," the embassy is surrounded by high brick walls topped by a rusting iron fence. Inside, the bright- yellow carpeting in the secret communication room has not been changed since radical Islamic students overran the building in 1979 and took 66 Americans hostage in a crisis that lasted 444 days.

Dusty circuit boards and Bakelite phone sets taken from the Americans have been returned and put on display, museum relics to the current occupants -- young, smartphone-wielding paramilitaries, members of the Basij militia, 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 Mohammad Reza Soghigi, who guided the foreign reporters visiting the site. "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 Islamic Revolution. But the atmosphere in Tehran has shifted since the reformist Hassan Rouhani replaced his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president. For many here, the embassy is a relic that is long past its sell-by date.

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

Mr. Soghigi, a Basiji himself, was in no mood to forget. He flipped through 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."

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

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

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