Forty Years on, Hostage Crisis Poisons Iran-US Ties

TEHRAN, Iran (AFP) — Forty years since revolutionary students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage, the crisis still poisons relations between the arch foes.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said the United States policy toward his country is so belligerent he sees no reason to negotiate anything. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

On Nov. 4, 1979, less than nine months after the toppling of Iran’s U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi, students overran the complex to demand the United States hand over the ousted ruler, who had been admitted to a U.S. hospital.

It took 444 days for the crisis to end with the release of 52 Americans, but the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 and ties have been frozen ever since.

Iranians will celebrate the incident from Saturday with the unveiling of freshly painted murals on the walls of the former embassy, now a museum chronicling U.S. “arrogance” around the world, according to Fars news agency.

Anti-American artworks that for decades adorned the walls of the embassy were sandblasted away in October to make way for the new murals.

Gary Sick, a U.S. Security Council official who dealt with the hostage crisis at the time, said the incident was “probably the single best explanation for why we’re in the sort of impasse we are right now.”

“If you look at everything Iran has done or we have done in the meantime, the kind of punishment that is being meted out to Iran is totally disproportionate,” he told Agence France-Presse in Washington.

Four decades on from the storming of the embassy, tensions are peaking again.

President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew last year from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions as part of a campaign of “maximum pressure.”

The 2015 accord had promised to open up Iran’s economy to the world after years of isolation, in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

Its unraveling made some in Tehran see Washington as untrustworthy in negotiations, though many young Iranians still see talks as the only way forward.

“I, like the rest of my generation, believe we have never had a problem with the American people,” said Khadijeh, a 19-year-old student in Tehran.

The issue is with the U.S. administration’s consistently negative policies against Iran, she said, dressed in the long chador gown worn by conservative Iranian women.

“We have tried everything, whether it was fighting or peace … but (America) does not accept anything,” she said.

Students who took part in the embassy takeover have voiced similar sentiments.

Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, was a 20-year-old medical student at the time of the hostage crisis.

She became a key spokesperson for the students, thanks to her fluent English.

Despite her past, Ebtekar was a firm supporter of her government’s efforts to rebuild ties with the West through the 2015 nuclear deal, she told AFP in a 2016 interview.

She said she regretted the isolation that followed, but remained unrepentant — the students were convinced the United States was preparing a coup to reverse the revolution, just as it had supported the 1954 coup that brought down the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the shah.

“The incident (in 1979) certainly had a cost, but the cost was less than its benefit,” Ebtekar told KhabarOnline news agency last year.

Another then-student, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who later became a reformist politician, in 2014 apologized for the hostage-taking.

“We just wanted to occupy the embassy for 48 hours, and I don’t agree with sanctifying the move and thinking we should chant ‘Death to America’ forever,” he said.

Over the decades, some politicians on both sides have wanted to move on, most notably Iran’s former reformist president Mohammad Khatami and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

But the crisis scarred the U.S. psyche. According to Sick, now a professor at Columbia University, that helps explain Washington’s persistent hard line.

The arch foes came to the brink of a military confrontation in June when Iran shot down a U.S. drone and Trump ordered retaliatory strikes before cancelling them at the last minute

The crisis deepened with mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and Saudi oil installations, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran has denied involvement, and in September, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out negotiations with the United States “at any level.”

But many young Iranians say it is high time for de-escalation and negotiations.

“It’s no longer a time for war and conflict. It will harm both sides,” said Parsa, a 25-year-old art student.

“I think Iran should start negotiating with America. Talks would benefit both sides.”

© Agence France-Presse

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