20 Years After Hostages, Iran Reflects on Costs


Seldom has an event sundered two nations as suddenly and decisively.

It was 10 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979.

Mohammed Ebrahim Asgharzadeh and two of his colleagues in the Muslim Students Assn. had organized an invasion of the 27-acre U.S. Embassy compound in the middle of Tehran.

Their aim was to protest President Carter’s decision to admit the exiled shah of Iran to the United States for medical treatment, and, according to Asgharzadeh today, they expected the takeover to be nonviolent and short-lived.

But the affair took on a momentum all its own, and it was 444 days before the hostages were freed. In the meantime, the United States and Iran had fallen into an abyss of enmity out of which each still seems helpless to climb.

Today, the 20th anniversary of the capture of the 66 U.S. diplomats--14 were freed before the ordeal ended--will be a time of reflection for Asgharzadeh and his fellow hostage-takers.


What on that day had appeared a victory for Iran came at a terrible cost. The hostage-taking left the new Islamic Republic diplomatically isolated and vulnerable. Within a year, Iran had been invaded by an Iraqi regime armed by the West. The war took hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives and left the country firmly in the grip of puritanical clerics for more than a decade.

For Iranians, the plus side of the ledger is more emotional and less tangible.

The taking of the hostages occurred in a spasm of national outrage at the asylum given to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The role played by the U.S. in Iran--deposing a democratically chosen prime minister in 1953 in a CIA-financed coup, using Iran as a regional bulwark against both communism and radical Arab nationalism, backing the shah even as his people were turning against him--all smacked of colonialism to a proud country with a history of 3,000 years.

For better or worse, the hostage-taking was an irrevocable break with that legacy.

But could it have been done differently? That question haunts the hostage-takers today--many of whom, like Asgharzadeh, have joined the reformist camp seeking to increase pluralism and democracy and reject the absolutist brand of Islam represented by hard-liners.

Asgharzadeh said his most vivid memory, and greatest regret, of the takeover was the pictures of the blindfolded hostages that were shown around the world.

“Some student took one or two of the hostages with blindfolds to the door and showed them to the photographers in the street,” he said. “It showed we had humiliated the Americans.”

Now a member of the capital’s freely elected City Council, Asgharzadeh has recently shed his revolution-era stubbly beard that long was obligatory for Iranian men. With salt-and-pepper hair and rimless glasses, he looks the Western business executive in his wood-paneled office.

Discussing the hostage-taking today, he offers an analogy: Suppose you have a garment and it eventually shrinks. Do you keep wearing it, trying to stretch the material down to cover yourself? Or do you put on another garment?

The implication is that the hostage-taking fit with those times but doesn’t suit these.

“Every revolution at first has special idealistic causes and aims to change the world. But in practice, after a while, the revolutionaries will come face to face with some realities,” he said.

“We, after 20 years of great difficulties, including a war imposed on us and a poor economy, are confronting the demand of the people to participate in politics. The people do not accept for the government to have a license to do whatever it wants.”

Perhaps that is why the anniversary observations this year--by students, at least--promise to be muted.

Instead of celebrating a victory over “the Great Satan,” chanting anti-American slogans and burning the U.S. flag outside the old embassy, the Unity Consolidation Office, the country’s main student movement, declared the anniversary a time for today’s generation to commit itself to dialogue.

“We hope the third decade of the revolution will be the decade of dialogue . . . [moving away] from the present state of imposed views,” said Ali Afshari, a student leader who supports the reform movement of President Mohammad Khatami.

But today there will also be a state-sponsored rally outside the embassy in a more traditional anti-American vein, put on by hard-liners in parliament, the judiciary and members of the basij, the religious extremist shock troops mobilized to defend the revolution.

The conservative speaker of parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, set the tone Wednesday, vowing that Iran won’t revive diplomatic relations broken off in 1980. “The U.S. government, despite the false impression of strength that it wants to exude,” Nateq-Nouri said, “is still under the domination of a group of Zionists.”

Despite such pronouncements, there appears to be a building consensus in Iran that resumption of relations with Washington is more a matter of when than if. But Iran is awaiting some significant gestures from the United States first.

“If the government of the U.S. comes to the point where it respects our government, our people and the way our people have decided for themselves to run the country, then everything will be normal,” predicted Marzieh Seddighi, an independent member of parliament.

Nowadays, the embassy is a quiet place, used for the High School of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Foreign journalists are allowed to stand outside and take pictures, but admission to the grounds is restricted. A bookstore that once sold volumes of shredded secret U.S. documents found inside the “Den of Spies” (and painstakingly reassembled by the students after the takeover) has been closed.

The embassy wall’s anti-American graffiti, which had been allowed to fade, were recently repainted. The aging slogans--"We will make America face a severe defeat” and “On that day when USA shall praise us we should mourn"--are now back in vivid colors, as is the mural of a skeletal Statue of Liberty standing before an American flag.

But they elicit not a glance from pedestrians, who seem to shun walking on that side of the street anyway.

A U.S. visitor to Iran is apt to hear a much friendlier message from Iranians. “Tell the Americans that we Iranians do like them, and please send special regards to Mr. Bill Clinton,” said Hamid, a 42-year-old waiter at the former American Restaurant, now renamed, just opposite the compound.

In talks with Iranians, however, there is often also a trace of hurt that the United States didn’t understand their state of mind at that time, and especially that it didn’t realize how incendiary taking in the deposed shah would be for them.

But of course, the Iranians were equally clueless in estimating the psychic blow that Americans, accustomed to being a global superpower, would suffer at seeing their diplomats held by a rabble supported by the Iranian government and being utterly powerless to rescue them.

Now, Asgharzadeh says, he wishes it could simply be relegated to history. “The fact is that at a certain juncture in time, we had to react to the behavior of America,” he said. “But it is not necessary that we take that picture from that time and impose it on our current agenda.”

Interestingly, several of the hostage-takers have reemerged in public in their 40s as strong supporters of reform, democracy and tolerance.

Alongside Asgharzadeh, a key figure in planning the takeover was Abbas Abdi, who is now a leading light in the pro-Khatami 23rd of May Movement. And the hostage-takers’ spokeswoman, Masoumeh Ebtekar, has become a vice president and the highest-ranking woman in the Khatami Cabinet.

Looking back, Asgharzadeh recalls it all as “a strange experience.”

On that morning 20 years ago, they were ordinary students planning, with the heady arrogance of youth, to make some political points against the United States.

But within hours, they were the focus of the world’s attention and had become an unrivaled center of power within Iran.

Eventually, the student leaders relinquished responsibility for the hostages to the government, he said.

“We decided to withdraw from the political scene,” he said. “And we returned to our homes and our classes.”