Tehran — It’s hard to believe that stately tree-lined Teleghany Street in the north of the Iranian capital was once the literal frontline of American domestic and foreign policy. Nearly 20 years ago student revolutionaries stormed the huge U.S. Embassy facility here and held the station’s diplomatic corps hostage for more than a year. The results of that takeover can arguably be said to have irrevocably changed both Iran and the United States.

But you wouldn’t have any notion of those momentous events by the goings-on at this site now. Languid art and handicraft galleries lay directly across the street from the quiet brick walled grounds since transformed into a military school. Few customers inspected the upscale art wares for sale on this hot August afternoon. And absolutely no one strolled past the tall pines providing welcome shade on the brick wall that still sports anti-American imperialist invective in both English and Farsi. “Read the Koran as our weapon” says one in the native language. “We will make America face a severe defeat” claims another in English.

The focus of the ground’s 10-foot high masonry remains a beaten and badly worn stone disc at the main gate. Though in rough condition, that disc still clearly displays a U.S. eagle ringed with the words “Embassy of the United States.” This stripped and ruined coin of the realm from an overextended superpower is left as an obvious warning of sorts to anyone who cares to notice. This mangled symbol also serves as an unmistakable nameplate on the Wailing Wall of Washington’s worst foreign policy debacle since Vietnam.

The embassy takeover led directly to the wreck of the Carter presidency, which in turn paved the way for a conservative backlash sea tide in both American politics and society at large. It also exposed again the dangerous lack of sophistication in our understanding of international trends and events. You only need to look at the unanticipated Indian-Pakistani nuclear weapons tests and the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to see the most recent examples of this endemic U.S. weakness.

Today, Iran struggles to cope with a population that has almost doubled since the 1979 revolution which toppled the Shah. At present, 60 percent of Iranians live below the official poverty line. Actual revenues (based on the most recent available government figures) in an economy based on oil sales were only 56 percent of budget projections. And from that estimate -- a total of $9 billion -- more than 11 percent had already been earmarked for debt repayments alone. Last week the benchmark Brent crude oil price hit a 10-year low of $11.55 a barrel. After three weeks in country, I could find no one who admitted to a better life since the religious clerics came to power. Of course, the American-led economic embargo has only worsened matters.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, is a nation and a people with remarkable staying power, nearly 5,500 years worth of recorded history as a unique and distinct culture apart from the surrounding Arabs and far older than the Muslim religion itself. At present, the Persian capital has an estimated population of 10 million. And every one of them seems to be packed into hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles that daily choke its crooked streets from dawn to well past midnight. The city buses are segregated by gender — women and girls sit in the back. All the adult women and teenage girls wear some type of cover on their heads. Most of the middle-age men in the city center appear to wear casual business attire and no one wears shorts except for the smallest tots. While the former U.S. Embassy mostly plays host to silent ghosts of the revolutionary past, Tehran remains a defiant city where embassy protests are part of the landscape. During the last few days, Iranians have demonstrated at the Pakistani Embassy and elsewhere, venting their outrage at the Islamabad government which is accused of assisting the Taliban forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The Taliban reportedly have taken Iranian diplomats and a journalist hostage. The Iranian government has likewise condemned this Taliban action as a break with internationally accepted standards of behavior. Some things never change.

August 1998.
Video Still by LJM.