Ordinary Iranians Soften Toward U.S.

ByABC News
April 6, 2005, 2:16 PM

TEHRAN, Iran, April 10, 2005 — -- Twenty-five years ago, Mohsen Mirdamadi and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh were young Iranian engineering students among the revolutionaries who took and held American hostages for 444 days in Tehran.

In fact, Asgharzadeh claims taking over the U.S. embassy where the hostages were seized was his idea. But these days, he and Mirdamadi are members of Iran's political reform movement, and look back at the hostage situation with some regret.

"As I have said repeatedly, burning the American flag was wrong," Asgharzadeh said through a translator. "And even back then, there were many students just like me who thought we should not burn the American flag. We had no right to insult the sacred symbol of another nation."

Nearly half of Iran's population was born after the hostage crisis. In a country growing richer with rising oil prices, and enjoying satellite television and American fast food, most young Iranians have little interest in politics. And with the Islamic revolution 25 years in the past, the grainy images mean little to Iran's youth.

Though the hostage crisis remains the predominant image of Iran for many Americans, for Iran, it is time to move on, Mirdamadi said through a translator.

"Gradually, I think it is now an event in the history," he said. "Its time now is over."

For many Americans, particularly those under 30, the notion that Iran once was a U.S. ally -- indeed, its surrogate in the Persian Gulf -- is the stuff of history. On an official level, Iranians and Americans haven't had a genuinely kind word for one another since that grim Sunday in November 1979, when student revolutionaries took all the Americans inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage -- including diplomats, intelligence officers and Marine guards.

The Iranian students had stormed the embassy partly out of frustration with what they viewed as consistent American interference in Iranian affairs. Also, the U.S. government had just allowed the shah, Iran's exiled dictator, into the United States for medical treatment. Many young Iranians feared the United States was planning to reinstall the shah and crush the Islamic revolution.

In America, yellow ribbons popped up on trees and mailboxes throughout the land. The late-night ABC News updates on the crisis were so successful that they eventually evolved into a permanent show, "Nightline."

On and on it went, week after week, month after month, 444 days in all before the hostages were finally released at the very moment that Jimmy Carter stepped down and Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency.

Officially, not much has changed in 25 years. The American government is still publicly reviled in Tehran as the great Satan. And President Bush notably included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in the "axis of evil." The Iranian government fears a U.S. invasion. The U.S. government fears that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

The U.S. Embassy still stands in Tehran, though the Americans are long gone. The building is now a museum of what its organizers call American criminality, featuring alleged evidence of American spying and other anti-American displays. Upon exiting, visitors are given a gift -- four pieces of candy with the words "Down with the U.S.A." on the back.

But unofficially, there may be change.

In Iran today, there are still occasional anti-American rallies, but the protesters' faces usually are older.

America is hardly the great Satan to a group of young English-speaking Iranians who gathered for ABC News' "Nightline." In fact, the students said they love to listen to music by American rappers like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg and to watch Larry King on CNN.

"There's a very positive image of American people in this society," said Siamak Namazi, a pollster. "Some almost argue that Iran is the last pro-American society in the Middle East."