Ordinary Iranians Soften Toward U.S.

ByABC News

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."

In Tehran, where memories of the revolution are still fresh, even former revolutionaries like Mirdamadi and Asgharzadeh slowly have been moderating their views on America. Both are members of the nation's reform movement. And despite their revolutionary pasts, both have been banned from political office.

Asgharzadeh said they have no regrets about Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution because "a humane and popular revolution, at that time, was an historic necessity for Iran. Why should we be sorry?"

Nowadays, though, Mirdamadi stresses that the embassy takeover was not personal.

"That event was not a hostility between these persons who were on two sides of this conflict," he said. "This was a problem between two countries, and a result of a historical events that happened at the time."

Today, there is not much of an appetite for radical revolution in Iran. The open student protests of recent years have disappeared. Many crusading journalists have been shut down or threatened.

Former hostage taker Abbas Abdi is in prison five years after meeting in Paris with Barry Rosen, an American shown blindfolded and handcuffed during the hostage crisis. As the editor of a reformist newspaper, Abdi published a poll showing that some 74 percent of Iranians were in favor of renewed relations with the United States, an idea counter to the official line.

Also five years ago, Said Hajjarian's newspaper published stories about government death squads. He still has difficulty walking after he was shot in the face.

"In Third World countries like Iran, reforms are very costly, and one must pay for that or else nothing will improve," Hajjarian said via a translator. "It doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to pay the way I have paid for it. But it has to be at a level that one can afford."

That kind of intimidation is what made several former revolutionaries like Asgharzadeh and Mirdamadi into opponents of the current regime.

"The goals that people made, the revolution, now it's forgotten," Mirdamadi said. "Actually, if we can't continue our reform, we seriously believe that we are going to another dictatorship, this time with the cover of religion."

It is a concern many Iranians share, but very few are in favor of fighting a new revolution to fix it.

"We have had enough of revolution in the last 100 years," said Nasser Hadian of the University of Tehran. "So, we have come to the conclusion that another revolution, another particularly bloody revolution is not going to solve our problem."

While the leadership of Iran has grown more religiously conservative in the past few years, banning liberal politicians from running and cracking down on journalists, the students gathered for "Nightline" said their personal freedom has been expanding -- as long as they stay away from politics.

"I am not a journalist and I haven't been arrested," one student said. "I haven't been arrested yet, because I don't know how they arrest people."

Politics is a very delicate subject in Iran. Although many people are critical of their government in private, in public and on camera, they choose their words very carefully.

"In terms of the political realm, they have become somewhat frustrated from all political parties, from the reformers and the non-reformers," said Hadian of the University of Tehran, speaking of today's students.

"If we really want to change our government, we can," one student said. "But you know, a revolution or something, I don't know. Sudden change won't be effective."

Iran these days may seem to be more about malls than mullahs and mosques. And with the crackdown in political activity, people are realizing more and more that their ability to change the system is really derived from their power to make money.

"During university, most students did have some political activities," said Norshid, an active student leader at one of Tehran's largest universities two years ago. "But after a time, it's like a fire that's more smoke than heat: It's not really worthwhile. It didn't have any results."

Since his protest days, Norshid has given up politics to make money running an Internet café, where he said through a translator that his customers pay in cash.

With money comes leisure time, material rewards that were once only dreamed of. However, this expansion of personal freedom often conflicts with Iran's strong Muslim tradition.

"We have the right to vote, we have the right to do just everything," one of the students told "Nightline." "We have lots of women who are representatives. And we have lots of women who are so successful, who've been succeeding in their lives."

But Hadian, the pollster, may see the possibility for renewed dissent under the surface.

"A student at the university, I can say that they are frustrated, but the potential for becoming politicized again is very much," he said. "And they feel that they should exercise more influence. But somehow, in the back of their mind at least, they're looking for opportunity."

ABC News' Bob Woodruff's original version of this story from Tehran, Iran, aired March 30, 2005, on "Nightline."

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