TEHRAN — 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 black 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 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,” said Mehdi Zohari, a 31-year-old electrician and Basiji. “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 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, written 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 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. “This is the real face of America,” he said, stopping at a drawing of Lady Liberty with a hooked nose and diabolical smile that was labeled “Satan.”
Farther down stood portraits of what were described as “brave Americans” who spoke out against America, among them a Holocaust denier, Roger Garaudy of France, and the performer Harry Belafonte. “He was against the Iraq war,” Mr. Soghigi explained.
“Come up, come up, you must see this,” he said excitedly, tapping on a vault door while calling down the grand stairs leading to the second floor. “This is where the C.I.A. has a secret wing.” Room after room of listening devices and eavesdropping equipment, discovered by angry revolutionaries 34 years ago, were now open to the public.
One of the rooms included a glass box in which diplomats could conduct top secret conversations without fear of being overheard. “This shows we were right to take over the embassy, otherwise we would have ended up like Egypt,” said Mohammad Reza Cheraghi, a 30-year-old Basiji volunteer. He said the C.I.A. had prevented the Muslim Brotherhood from holding on to power in Egypt, bringing back the army instead.
As political theories were explained in minute detail, men wearing Oakley sunglasses and their hair in dreadlocks stepped into the formerly secret C.I.A. wing and started taking photographs. “Who are these guys? They are suspicious,” one of the students whispered to his friend.
But after a quick exchange with the Iranian guide, it turned out the men were members of the Venezuelan band Bituaya, on tour in Tehran. One of the musicians showed a picture of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who died in March, holding the band member’s long dreadlocks in the air. With that, the Basiji decided to take a group photograph with the band in front of the glass-box room.
“This is an act of a sovereign nation,” one of the band members said of the Iranian takeover of the embassy. “We wouldn’t do this in our country, but good for them.”
Mr. Soghigi did not neglect the relevance of the relics to the current dispute over snooping by the National Security Agency. “Now the Americans are even spying on their allies,” he said, perhaps forgetting that the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was an American ally.
But not all the visitors were as enthusiastic about excoriating the United States as Mr. Soghigi was. To some, the embassy resembled a museum more than a “den of spies.”
“Is the U.S. still our enemy?” asked Mr. Zohari, the electrician. While he did not doubt that the United States was guilty of many crimes, he said, it had also used its knowledge and power to advance science and technology.
“But look at Saudi Arabia, our regional enemy,” he said. “They are just buying weapons. Maybe it’s better we occupy their embassy instead.” He added that he would like to emigrate to the United States.
At the former ambassador’s residence, which is now the office of a top general of the Basij, street cats lay in the sun.
“They threw their parties next to the pool,” Pouria, a conscripted soldier who had six months left in his military service but would not give his full name for fear of being punished by his superiors, said of the former occupants of the compound.
“This is a beautiful place,” he said. “But whatever happens, I don’t think the Americans will ever return here. Too much has happened for that.”
Oct 31, 2013Read the full article...