Changes in Iran, through the eyes of a hostage taker
Iranians celebrate 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, butmany have moderated their views.
Taking American diplomats hostage in Iran during the Islamic revolution 20 years ago was all part of the zealotry of the time for Abbas Abdi: After decades of American "meddling," humiliation of the United States was a top priority.Skip to next paragraph
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As one of three leaders of the "Students Following the Line of Imam," Mr. Abdi had his dream realized when his cabal of hard-liners organized the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, known then as the "den of spies."
To chants of "Death to America" on Nov. 4, 1979, US Marine guards were overwhelmed, diplomats were taken into custody, and the American flag was burned on the rooftop.
"We have control," Abdi recalls announcing to the world. The echo of that statement traumatized a superpower - as 52 American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days - and poisoned Iran-US ties for two decades.
But this week, as Iranians celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the overthrow of the American-backed Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, Abdi says he is "older and wiser." The sea change in his own political thinking - from extremist revolutionary to moderate with tolerant views - mirrors those throughout Iran.
"Everything has changed," says Abdi, who is now an editor of the moderate Salam newspaper. "The world has changed, our regime has changed, our social environment has changed.... For sure I changed too."
Tension with the US is often traced back to a 1953 coup orchestrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which helped overthrow a short-lived elected government and snuffed out budding democracy in Iran.
Though almost no CIA documents about this operation are known to still exist, it is commonly accepted that the US then installed the shah and trained his notoriously brutal SAVAK internal security forces.
Press freedom and dissent were unheard of, and - in an effort to "Westernize" - religious expression was restricted.
The coup "created a deep hatred among Iranians for the US," says Ibrahim Yazdi, the first foreign minister of the revolution.
Iranians overthrew the shah in February 1979, and in those heady days, street violence mixed with ideological fervor. Freedom from the shah's repressive rule, independence from Western domination, and an Islamic regime served as the three pillars of the revolution.
Then, when the US accepted the exiled shah for medical treatment in the US in October 1979, the die was cast for the embassy takeover.
But today, a new strategic dynamic is bringing the two enemies closer together. Can Iran afford to remain isolated from the world's one remaining superpower? And can the US continue to ignore Iran's strategic role as an emerging regional power that sits at the energy and geographic crossroads of Central Asia?
As a result, Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami and American officials have dabbled with dtente, and enthusiasm for flag-burning is at an all-time low.
Mr. Khatami first offered the olive branch a year ago. He stopped short of making an apology for the embassy takeover but expressed "regret" for the pain that the hostage saga caused Americans.