40 years after US Embassy seizure, Iran’s youth have mixed feelings
There appears to be a disconnect among youth with the pivotal moment in 1979.
TEHRAN, Iran -- Forty years ago, student followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution, took the American embassy in Tehran by storm, capturing diplomats working there and holding the group of more than 50 hostage for 444 days.
Today the embassy seizure continues to divide Iran’s youth. For some young people it still resonates; they say the students who participated in the action made the best decision they could at the time. Others, however, question, the very basis of the move in the first place.
“I would definitely help those who climb the walls of the embassy, if I were there,” said Reyhaneh, 18, a high school student in mathematics in Tehran. However, Reyhaneh -- who like others interviewed for this story did not want her last name disclosed due to security reasons -- did not specifically know what moved the students to seize the embassy in the first place.
“Whatever it was, it has been a good reason, because America has always been a greedy country that doesn’t stick to its promises,” she added.
Abbas Abdi, a political analyst who works mainly with reformist media and was among the students who stormed the embassy, finds it difficult to explain the political context of the country at the time to the younger generation. “Many things have changed since then,” he told ABC News. “It is not easy to explain it to younger people, especially as the story they have heard has been mainly from their own government perspective. But the country is now in a very different situation.”
One of the main reasons the embassy was seized was the fact that the former shah of the country, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been admitted to an American hospital for cancer treatment. The students intended to temporarily seize the embassy to pressure President Jimmy Carter to return the pro-American shah to Iran, so he could stand trial on corruption charges.
But their plan changed after Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, approved of the takeover and even called it “the second revolution.” Nov. 4 later became known as “Student Day” in Iran.
“I might not know specifically why those students decided to take over the embassy,” a 21-year old music student told ABC News. “But I see and live the consequences of climbing those walls every day, like international pressures, sanctions, and unemployment” she added.
In a meeting with students Sunday, Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the Iran-U.S. dispute did not originate from the embassy seizure.
“It dates back to the U.S. coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 which led to setting up a corrupt dependent regime in Iran,” he said, referring to the U.S. involvement in overthrowing Mosaddegh in favor of strengthening the monarchy and Pahlavi.
To Abdi, one of the elements affecting Iranians’ assessment of the U.S. embassy seizure is their view of the current government.
“When people’s take on the government is negative, and the (conservative) government defends the seizure, then the public develops a negative approach towards it,” Abdi said.
“We are told on TV and at school to shout 'Death to America,' but I do not like it as much as I don’t like anyone saying 'Death to Iran' the country that I live in,” said Fatemeh, 17, high school student.
“No country is perfect, but taking embassies is wrong because my religion says we shouldn’t treat others in ways that we’d not like to be treated,” she said. “U.S. sanctions on us is wrong with the very same reason.”
Abdi said he believes the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and reinstate sanctions, has helped solidify support around the embassy seizure, despite the effect of the sanctions, which have put the nation’s economy into a state of distress.
“Refusal of negotiating with the U.S. is one of the important tools to block their way to Iran,” Ayatollah Khamenei said on Sunday according to his official website. “Should Iranian officials be naive and negotiate, Americans would find an official way to impose their new expectations and demands,” he added.
In a statement, the Trump White House blasted the "brazen act" of the embassy seizure and said Iran "continues to target innocent civilians for use as pawns in its failed foreign relations." The U.S. promised to "continue to impose crippling sanctions" until this behavior changes.
"Instead of being the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, it can put the Iranian people first," the White House statement said. "It can choose peace over hostage taking, assassinations, sabotage, maritime hijacking, and attacks on global oil markets."
On Tuesday, Kayhan Daily, considered to be the hardliner party’s mouthpiece, invited Iraqis to take over the American embassy in Baghdad, in a column by Hosein Shariatmadari, also known for his hardline stances.
Ironically, on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure, Iraqi protestors stormed Iran’s consulate in Karbala, a Shia-majority city in Iraq.
Videos show people burning part of the outer wall and hanging Iraq’s flag.
President Trump retweeted the news on his account with no comment.
Abdi said that Trump's move sets a potentially dangerous precedent.
“If Trump retweets the news as an endorsement of Iraqis’ reaction to Iran’s involvement in their domestic affairs, then he should approve of what happened to their own embassy 40 years ago, too,” Abdi said.
“But if he perceives taking over the U.S. embassy as a bad move, he should not endorse what happened to Iran consulate either,” he added.