Back to the Bad Old Days

Back to the Bad Old Days

TEHRANAfter months of warming relations, the United States and Iran reverted last week to their more familiar role as enemies. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s choice of Hamid Aboutalebi as his new ambassador to the United Nations set off the latest bout of recriminations: Aboutalebi had served as a translator in the 1979 hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, leading American senators to brand him as an "acknowledged terrorist" and causing President Barack Obama’s administration to announce that it would deny him a visa to enter the United States in order to take up his post. Iranian lawmakers, meanwhile, accused the United States of "bullying."

The quarrel shows just how wide the gap between the U.S. and Iranian understanding of their shared history remains — and highlights why rapprochement remains so difficult. Despite the recent talks over Iran’s nuclear program, Washington and Tehran continue to hold wildly different views on Iran’s place in the world, and the Rouhani administration’s mandate to engage with the West is under constant threat of being undermined by the country’s hardliners.

The very idea of improving ties with the United States, after all, marks a stark departure from the Islamic Republic’s foundational principles. Habib Ahmadzadeh, a former captain in Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and author of several novels on the Iran-Iraq War, explained that resistance to Western dominance, rather than Islam, is the core of the ideology that sprung from the revolution.

"Imagine a child who keeps tormenting a kitten," he said, drawing an analogy about America’s supposed attempts to push Iran around. "After getting a lot of beatings, the kitten scratches back."

Ahmadzadeh rehearsed a long line of American injustices perpetrated against Iran, starting six decades ago — when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was the center of the CIA-supported coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. That previous experience, he said, helps explain why Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in 1979.

"What would you think our people would later on say if we allowed the embassy to stay open and then there was another coup?" he says. "After the Snowden leaks we now know that the U.S. spies everywhere. We know that embassies can be centers for listening in on people and they can be centers for creating civil war."

The hostage crisis, in which 52 embassy staff members were held captive for 444 days, was a crucial moment for U.S.-Iranian relations — and also for shaping the revolution’s nascent ideology. The incident remains a pillar in the post-revolutionary psyche: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini intoned that by storming the embassy, the students proved that America couldn’t "do a damn thing" against the rise of political Islam. The compound’s outside walls, adorned with well-maintained anti-American propaganda, is still one of Tehran’s few tourist attractions. Every year, crowds of regime supporters celebrate the anniversary of the takeover with rallies and chants of "Death to America."

For Ahmadzadeh, it’s hard to compare the hostage crisis to what he sees as the long list of American misdeeds. In 1988, he reminds me, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iran Air civilian passenger flight over Iranian airspace, killing 290 Iranians.  Meanwhile, the biggest injustice of all, according to him, was America’s support for Iraq during its war with Iran. After having stood idly by while Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched chemical weapons at Iranian soldiers, he is incredulous that the United States is now trying to limit Iran’s pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy.

"Everybody hypes up the U.S. embassy takeover, but the truth is that all the people who were taken hostage were returned home safely," says Ahmadzadeh. "Which one is worse? That, or 290 dead Iranians?"

While Ahmadzadeh’s views are fairly representative for mainstream regime loyalists, he doesn’t fit the stereotypical image painted in the West of men in his position. He opposes many of the Islamic Republic’s current policies, including religious restrictions on arts and culture, which have been tightened the past few years by what he calls "shallow moralists" who use Islam as a political tool. 

Similarly, the 56-year-old Aboutalebi also escapes typecasting. With a degree in sociology from a Belgian university, the rejected U.N. envoy speaks fluent French and English, and has stellar diplomatic credentials after serving as ambassador to Italy, Australia, Belgium, and the European Union. As a close advisor to Rouhani, he is viewed inside Iran as a moderate and a proponent of closer diplomatic relations with the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, himself widely respected for calming diplomatic waters, has called Aboutalebi "one of our most rational and experienced diplomats."

Aboutalebi’s role in the embassy takeover seems to have been marginal. In a March interview with Iranian media, Aboutalebi said he only acted as interpreter a couple of times, "based on humanitarian motivations."

Nor is Aboutalebi the only senior figure in Iran today who was involved in the event. In fact, several students more deeply involved in the crisis have gone on to become prominent reformists in the Rouhani administration.

Take Masoumeh Ebtekar is one of Iran’s former vice presidents and the head of its Environmental Protection Organization. In 1979, she acted as spokesperson for the students at the embassy, and became known to Americans as Sister Mary. Today, she is the highest-appointed woman since the Islamic Revolution, often held up by Western media and diplomats as a torchbearer for reform. With impeccable English skills, Ebtekar also regularly meets foreign dignitaries visiting Iran and maintains an English-language Twitter account.

Conservatives see the ban on Aboutalebi as yet another instance of direct American meddling in internal Iranian affairs — something they warned long ago would be the only result of trying to curry favor with Western powers. And they have used it to stoke skepticism about the Rouhani administration’s broader diplomatic aims.

"Resistance and firmness are the only solution with America and the West," read an editorial in Sobh-e Sadegh, a weekly belonging to the IRGC. "Having hope in negotiations and dialogue to resolve bilateral issues is an unrealistic hope."

Until now, Rouhani’s opponents have had little to gloat about — the president, after all, still has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But if speed bumps like this continue to stack up, Khamenei could shift his support.

"The supreme leader has adopted an ambiguous position. He is striking a balance between conservatives and Rouhani’s group," said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabaei University and a spokesman for the National Front, an opposition party founded by Mossadegh. "But his inclination is much stronger toward conservatives."

Speaking in the living room of his North Tehran apartment, Hermidas-Bavand said that the economic havoc wrought by international sanctions and eight years of mismanagement under Ahmadinejad had left the supreme leader with no choice but to give negotiations a try.

That kind of concern for the general state of the country doesn’t necessarily weigh on ordinary lawmakers. Parliament, which is dominated by conservatives and heavily influenced by the IRGC, has already attempted to obstruct the government’s policies. In December, dozens of parliamentarians tried to force Zarif’s resignation for comments he made about American military supremacy, while Rouhani’s pledge to relax control on the Internet and social media has likewise run into fierce opposition. Hardline MPs will likely use any affront from the United States to dig in their heels further.

"They are thinking of factional rather than national benefit," said Hermidas-Bavand. "The parliament wants to curtail Mr. Zarif."

So far, the diplomatic standoff continues: Iran refuses to name a replacement for Aboutalebi, and the United States refuses to let him in the country. While the diplomatic brawl causes headaches in Tehran, it may also prove to be a lost opportunity for Washington.

"[Aboutalebi] is a chief advisor to Rouhani," said Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington. "It would have been valuable to have him in New York to make sure that messages were conveyed authoritatively."