'Den of Espionage': Iranians Look Back at Takeover of U.S. Embassy, 40 Years On

As it does every anniversary, Iran plans to pack the streets outside the former embassy with another massive demonstration against the U.S.

A Shiite Muslim cleric walks past anti-U.S. graffiti on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy, in Tehran, Iran, on October 15, 2019.
Vahid Salemi,AP

For those who were there, the memories are still fresh, 40 years after one of the defining events of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when protesters seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and set off a 444-day hostage crisis.

The consequences of that crisis reverberate to this day.

Veteran Iranian photographer Kaveh Kazemi recalled snapping away with his camera as he stood behind the gate where the Iranian militant students would usher blindfolded American hostages to those gathered outside waving anti-American banners and calling for the extradition of the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

“Sometimes they would bring a U.S. flag and burn it, put it in flames and then throw it among the crowd,” said Kazemi, now 67, pointing to the spot. “They would come and chant ‘death to America,’ ‘death to the shah’ ... it changed the world as I knew it.”

Iranian photojournalist Kaveh Kazemi in front of the former embassy building, now dubbed "Den of Espionage," as he recalls the takeover in 1979, on October 15, 2019.
Vahid Salemi,AP

Anger toward America had already been growing throughout 1979 as Iran’s revolutionary government took hold, but it boiled over in October when the United States took in the ailing shah for medical treatment.

After several protests, the Islamist students raided the embassy on Nov. 4 and took 98 hostages.

What initially began as a sit-in devolved into 444 days of captivity for 52 Americans seized in the embassy. It prompted President Jimmy Carter to expel Iranian diplomats and launch a failed rescue mission before the Americans were eventually released on the last day of his presidency, setting off decades of hostility amid an Islamic takeover that turned the country from a former U.S. ally into perhaps its greatest adversary.

One of 60 U.S. hostages, blindfolded and with his hands bound, is displayed to the crowd outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian hostage takers, on November 9, 1979.
AP

Many of those sentiments remain today amid the escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington, following the disintegration of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal and the subsequent U.S. sanctions that have sent the Iranian economy into free fall.

Outside the former embassy’s shaded red brick walls, which were in the process of being painted with anti-U.S. murals for the upcoming anniversary, former protester Hossein Kouhi said he turned out in 1979 to denounce what he called U.S. intervention in Iran’s internal affairs, something he says continues today.

“I had a good feeling then, but we have had a bad fate,” said Kouhi, now 76, as he blamed the U.S for shortages of medicines in Iran because of the sanctions. “Even today, if we allow, it (the U.S.) will come here to plunder Iran, just like it’s doing to other countries in the region. No foreigner is a friend of Iran. They all lie.”

Hossein Kouhi, one of the workers who frequently protested at the U.S. Embassy, in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on October 15, 2019.
Vahid Salemi,AP

Zahra Tashakori, a 41-year-old schoolteacher, agreed, saying she was glad the American presence was long gone.

“Look at their movies. They promote violence and other bad things in the societies,” she said. “They ruined wherever they intervened in the region. Just look at Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, repeatedly hails the militants who took over the embassy as being “ahead of their time.”

A man takes picture of a room of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, now partly a museum, in Tehran, Iran on September 26, 2019.
Vahid Salemi,AP

Others on the street, though, had a more nuanced view in hindsight.
“I believed the U.S. Embassy should have been closed down officially, but not through takeover,” said Ghasem Rabiei, 49. “The U.S. was opposing the Islamic Republic in many ways, so they should have been deported from our country, but peacefully and legally.”

Reza Ghorbani, a 19-year-old engineering student at Tehran’s Azad University, asked: “What is the result of this super long hostility? I do not say the U.S. government is good, but these lengthy bitter relations have damaged Iran, too.”

The U.S. blames Iran for a series of mysterious oil tanker attacks this year and alleges it carried out last month’s attack on the world’s largest oil processor in Saudi Arabia, which caused oil prices to spike by the biggest percentage since the 1991 Gulf War.

A painting of one of the images from the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 inside a part of the building which has been turned into a museum, on September 26, 2019.
Vahid Salemi,AP

Iran denies the accusations and has warned that any retaliatory attack targeting it will result in an “all-out war,” as it has begun enriching uranium beyond the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

Iran also shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers, as the Trump administration insists upon continuing its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

As it does every anniversary, Iran plans to pack the streets outside the former embassy — rebranded as the “Den of Espionage” — for another massive demonstration looking to fuel more anti-American sentiment for at least another year.

For those who witnessed how it all began, it mostly serves as a reminder of all that it’s cost them.

“People should not suffer because of the hostilities among the two countries,” said Kazemi, the photographer. “If countries want to kill each other, kill each other. But ordinary people should not suffer. The inflation, the sanctions, everything is affecting all the people every day.”