'Probably the single best explanation for current impasse'

40 years on, embassy hostage crisis still haunts US-Iran ties

Relationship scarred by protesters storming US mission in November 1979 and ensuing 444 day standoff, leading to decades of mistrust and ill will, but some see room for an opening

Iranians walk past a mural painting, partially covered with cement, on the wall of the former US embassy in the capital Tehran on September 29, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Iranians walk past a mural painting, partially covered with cement, on the wall of the former US embassy in the capital Tehran on September 29, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

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

On November 4, 1979, less than nine months after the toppling of Iran’s American-backed shah, students overran the complex to demand the United States hand over the ousted ruler after he was admitted to a US hospital.

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

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

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

A woman walks her dog past a satirical drawing of Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, May. 8, 2018. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Gary Sick, an American 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 AFP in Washington.

On the eve of renewed sanctions by Washington, Iranian protesters burn a dollar banknote and a US makeshift flag during a demonstration outside the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 4, 2018, marking the anniversary of its storming by student protesters that triggered a hostage crisis in 1979. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

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

US 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 programme.

Its unravelling made some in Tehran see Washington as untrustworthy in negotiations — but many young Iranians still see talks as the only way forward.

‘Strive towards peace’

“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 US 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.

Massoumeh Ebtekar translates answers to questions from NBC News correspondent John Hart during a live broadcast on NBC’s “Today” program, April 10, 1980. (AP)

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 had been convinced the US was preparing a coup to reverse the revolution.

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

A representative of the Iranian students holds up a portrait of one of the blindfolded hostages, during a press conference in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Nov. 5, 1979. (AP)

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.

Moving on?

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 US 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 downed a US drone and Trump ordered retaliatory strikes before cancelling them at the last minute

A worker uses a water jet cleaner to erase a mural painting on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on September 29, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

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

An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 9, 2016. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

Iran has denied involvement, and in September, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out further 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.”

Tandon reported from Washington.

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