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A mosaic showing a handgun in US colors on a wall in Tehran
Anti-US rhetoric harks back to the time of the 1979 crisisImage: dpa

US-Iran relations

November 4, 2009

Thirty years on from the capture of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamist students, the consequences of that event still reverberate through Iran and its relations with the United States.


The latent unease and unrest in Iran was once again visible Wednesday on the Islamic Republic's Day of National Confrontation against World Imperialism - the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamist students in support of the Iranian Revolution.

Thousands of supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the US compound by filling the streets around the closed embassy in a state-organized anti-US rally chanting slogans such as "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

Nearby, security forces clashed with opposition supporters and anti-Ahmadinejad protestors, still smarting from the disputed reelection of the president in June. The demonstrators, many of whom wore the green colors of failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi, shouted "Death to the dictator" as police responded with tear gas.

Both sides seemed to be capitalizing on the anniversary of the capture of the US embassy 30 years ago to renew confrontations which may have been suppressed since the weeks of unrest following the presidential elections but have not been eradicated.

Significant anniversary for both sides of Iranian political divide

Anti-government protestors chanting slogans, on the sidelines of state-sanctioned rallies to mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover, in Tehran, Iran
Both sides of the Iranian divide mark the anniversaryImage: AP

The Nov. 4 date holds significance for both sides. Supporters of the regime see the capture of the US embassy as a pivotal event in the rise of the Islamic Republic and an unprecedented success against the United States. It remains a source of pride which fuels the belief that a sovereign Iran can be strong and independent in the face of US hegemony.

"We continue to hear very hostile rhetoric harking back to the period of the hostage crisis from Iran's leaders," Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow and expert on US foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "Ahmadinejad continues to very much play that card. The view from outside Iran is that Ahmadinejad and his support relies on this feeling of intense antagonism between Iran and the United States. People see a vested interest in stoking up these feelings on Ahmadinejad's part."

For opposition supporters, the anniversary marks the moment when the door to diplomacy and engagement in the world was slammed shut; a door that moderate Iranians hope to force open for the good of the nation, allowing Iran to fully rejoin the international community.

"There is a feeling in Iran that other regimes would have been more open to engagement and less invested in a stance of hostility towards the west," Dworkin added. "The moderates would undoubtedly have been more open to negotiations with the US."

This view was supported recently by Iran's top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri who said that the capture of the US embassy and the holding of US citizens as hostages was a mistake.

"The occupation of the American embassy at the start had the support of Iranian revolutionaries and the late Imam Khomeini and I supported it too," he said. "But considering the negative repercussions and the high sensitivity which was created among the American people and which still exists, it was not the right thing to do. Principally an embassy is part of that country and occupying an embassy of a country which was not at war with us was like declaring a war against that country. It was not a correct thing."

Hostage crisis continues to color US perception of Iran

Islamist students storm the US embassy in Tehran 1979
Islamist students stormed the US embassy in TehranImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Certainly the repercussions from the 1979 US hostage crisis rumble on in the current relations between the United States and Iran, adding weight to the belief of moderates like Montazeri that the event was highly detrimental to Iran's standing not only with the United States but in the wider western world.

"The embassy and hostage crisis on 1979 lay at the roots of the pretty widespread feeling in the United States that Iran is a hostile and threatening country and that dates back to the time of the Islamic Revolution," Dworkin said. "It still affects they way people in the US feel about Iran, even though more recently the whole nuclear issue has colored that, but I think the events around the whole hostage crisis are still resonant in the US because relations have been pretty frozen since then and there hasn't really been a chance to set a new tone."

Despite the continuing anti-US rhetoric and the freeze in relations, there have been moves by US President Barack Obama to reach out to Iran through his engagement strategy, a very different foreign agenda to the previous Bush administration's policy of confrontation.

While there have been some counter offers from Iran, they fall short of the clear-cut statements that the US is looking for. The experts believe this has much to do with the complexity of the situation within Iran.

Obama's engagement strategy causing unease in Tehran

Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and US and Iranian flags
Obama's strategy puts pressure on AhmadinejadImage: AP / DPA / Montage DW

"It's clear that the US wants to reopen dialogue and we've seen a lot from Obama; his praise of the Iranian people, his shift in language, his constant stressing of the legitimate interests of Iran and its dignity, civilization and so on," said Dworkin. "On the other hand, the political situation in Iran is going to make it difficult for the regime to respond positively to that. Domestically, it would be very hard for Ahmadinejad to go too far too quickly in responding to the US."

"Obama too is under pressure to show that the engagement strategy is yielding results. I think there are strong reasons on both sides to pursue an engagement strategy but the political context makes it quite difficult for both countries to spin this out for too much longer.”

Dr. Josef Braml from the German Council on Foreign Relations believes that Obama's engagement policy could make life more uncomfortable for Iran's current regime and have a detrimental effect on a possible thawing of relations.

"Obama offered an open hand, he unclenched his fist but the Iranian leadership has bitten it," Braml told Deutsche Welle. "For Iran, this approach has caused problems because if someone approaches you with a smiling face, he shows the rest of the world that he's open. If you're not willing to accept that then it will be easier for Obama to get other countries on board which may have been reluctant to take a stand against Iran. Being open and cooperative and not being rewarded for that is an argument for stronger sanctions."

"But I think there is still a chance of restoring ties by engaging Iran and involving Iran as part of the solution rather than part of the problem," Braml added. "This would give the Iranian leadership some acknowledgement. There is no longer any talk about regime change and more talk about how the Iranians can be part of international solutions."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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