Iran: an afternoon with a hostage-taker

About the author
Afshin Molavi is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran (WW Norton, 2002). He has reported on Iran for the Washington Post and Reuters, and is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Just before embarking on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Mohammad Mossadeq, I decided to pay a visit to Mohsen Mirdamadi, a one-time student firebrand who led the 1979 hostage-taking of American diplomats. Today, Mirdamadi’s politics have mellowed, his hair has thinned, and his beard has grayed. He belongs to the small but vocal group of former hostage takers who now talk of democratic reform.

My fixer, Amir – an Eminem-loving, mullah-bashing, religious young man who gives to Islamic charities – picked me up for the midday drive to downtown, his car thumping with the sounds of a popular Persian female singer, Maryam, who had recently taken the Tehran underground music scene by storm with a song that combined aching love lyrics with rap-style heavy beats. When I told Amir that I planned to see Mirdamadi, he lowered the volume, shook his head and said, “We’re still paying for the actions of those fools. If they hadn’t taken those American hostages, we’d be much better off. We would still have relations with America, American companies would do business here, and we’d be just a more normal country.”

Also by Afshin Molavi in openDemocracy:

An Islamic Republic? Yes or No!” (April 2005)

This article is part of openDemocracy’s debate on Democracy & Iran, which includes articles by Mohsen Sazegara, Ardashir Tehrani, Hossein Derakhshan, Farideh Farhi, Bezhad Yaghmaian, and many others

The most recent articles are:

Trita Parsi, “The Iran-Israel cold war

Nasrin Alavi, “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fear

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Amir, like many “children of the revolution,” people under the age of 35 who were either unborn or very young in 1979, harbour little ill-will toward America. In fact, many are downright pro-American, unlike their parents’ generation, who expressed an anti-Americanism that was both politically motivated and fashionable. Amir explained it this way:

“As I got older, I realised that our government was keeping us behind. They kept telling us what we cannot do, while enriching themselves, and blaming America for everything. They have failed to deliver what we wanted — a normal life, with good jobs and basic freedoms. So I stopped listening to them.”

He went on to describe a scene in his high school in which a group of young men, rather than chant Marg Bar Amreeka (Death to America), cleverly muttered under their breath a phrase with similar intonation but a radically different meaning: Bar Gard Amreeka (Please return, America). He laughed as he recalled the scene. “We did that for a few days, until word spread and we stopped.”

On a couple of occasions, Amir asked me, hopefully, “Do you think America will save us? Overthrow these mullahs?” On other occasions, he asked me, equally hopefully, “Do you think we will one day restore relations with America? So, American companies will do business here again?” Another time, he said, “America ought to just leave us alone. We can make change ourselves.” All across Iran, I heard such contradictory remarks, revealing that the shadow of America still looms large in the Iranian psyche.

Before my appointment with Mirdamadi, I asked Amir to take me to the old US embassy where revolutionary Iranian students scaled the walls one drizzly autumn day twenty-five years ago and took fifty-two diplomats hostage, holding them 444 days in one of the gravest diplomatic crises in American history.

The former US embassy compound is a sprawling set of buildings behind a series of tall walls, occupying two full city blocks. One of the walls is covered with anti-American paintings: the Statue of Liberty with its face depicted as an evil skeleton; a large gun coloured in red, white, and blue; a U.S. marine being taken hostage. Accompanying this propaganda are statements like ON THAT DAY WHEN THE US OF A WILL PRAISE US, WE SHOULD MOURN; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AFTER QODS OCCUPIER REGIME [Israel] IS THE MOST HATED BEFORE OUR NATION; and the old favourite, DOWN WITH USA.

The embassy now hosts a university for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard armed forces. An adjoining bookstore (usually empty of customers) sells religious literature, anti-American screeds, and bound copies of American diplomatic files, some of which were painstakingly rebuilt from shredded documents. When I bought an entire series of these books, entitled Documents from the US Espionage Den, the chador-clad woman behind the desk seemed surprised. The books had a thin film of dust on them, which she wiped away with a wet napkin.

The most striking thing about anti-Americanism in Iran is how little of it actually exists. Yes, there are billboards that depict the red stripes of the American flag ending in missiles and, yes, hardline officials still urge “Death to America” during Friday prayers, but it hasn’t stuck with the population. Iran is not Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Jordan, where anti-Americanism is rife among the people of those key US allies. “The paradox of Iran,” Karim Sadjadpour, the astute Tehran-based analyst of the International Crisis Group, told me, “is that it just might be the most pro-American – or, perhaps least anti-American – populace in the Muslim world.”

Most Iranians, I found, would rather go to America than chant “Death to America.” When a public opinion poll noted that 75% of Iranians favoured resuming government dialogue with the United States, the pollsters were jailed. Ironically, one of the jailed pollsters, Abbas Abdi, was a hostage taker.

Mirdamadi’s office, on the fourth floor of a crumbling government building, was bare and spartan. There were no books, no tea stains on the desk, no clutter. It was one of many offices he “borrows,” he told me, since his virtual ejection from the majlis (parliament). His credentials, along with some eighty other sitting parliament deputies and another 2,500 parliamentary hopefuls, had been rejected by the unelected, hard-line Guardian Council, prohibiting him from running in the February 2004 elections. The action shattered any pretence of Iranian democracy. He and other parliament deputies staged a sit-in protest that attracted international press attention but little public support. Iranian people had lost faith in reformists like Mirdamadi. Hardliners benefited from Iranian apathy. They got away with democratic murder.

“The parliamentary elections showed that the right-wing extremists still hold decisive power,” Mirdamadi said, as we sat across from each other – he behind a large, imposing desk, underneath a fraying photo of Ayatollah Khomeini, and I, perching uncomfortably on a creaky chair.

Did it also show, I ventured, that the reformists had lost their appeal?

“In some ways, I can understand student frustrations with the reformist camp. They want more rapid change,” he said.

He should know what that feels like. He joined the fight against the Shah in the 1970s precisely because he, too, was a frustrated student who wanted change. “The Shah was a dictator,” he explained. “He choked off all opposition, so it was natural that students would oppose him.

Afshin Molavi is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran (WW Norton, 2002) updated as The Soul of Iran: A Nation’s Journey to Freedom (WW Norton, 2005)

“When I entered university in 1973, there was a lot of political tension. Most students were anti-Shah and, as a result, there was a great deal of anti-American sentiment because the US was supporting the Shah’s dictatorship. The two most active political groups were the Islamists on the one hand and the Marxists/Communists/Third Worldists that we called the leftists on the other. I gravitated toward the Islamists, but the leftists were even more anti-American than we were. The Islamists and the leftists worked together. We would coordinate our protests. But from 1975 onward, we split, though we shared the same goal: the overthrow of the Shah.”

After the Shah’s downfall, the competing revolutionary factions turned their sights on each other. Amid this chaos, which included uprisings in two key provinces and light guerrilla warfare in the streets, Mirdamadi and other students feared a United States-led countercoup, so they plotted to take over the embassy.

“There were about 400 of us who took part in the operation,” he began. “I was part of the leadership council. When the US allowed the Shah to enter America for medical reasons, we were convinced they were plotting against us. So, we wanted to send a message. We intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more.

“After we took over the embassy, Iranians from all over the city streamed into the area and chanted anti-American slogans. The events took on a life of their own. When the Imam [Khomeini] blessed the takeover, there was no turning back.”

Ayatollah Khomeini reportedly had no prior knowledge of the embassy attack, but he belatedly endorsed it, ensuring that the hostages would not be freed easily.

I came to Amir’s question – and mine. I asked Mirdamadi if he regretted his actions.

“Clearly, our actions might have hurt us economically because it led to a disruption of relations, but I don’t regret it,” he said. “I think it was necessary for that time. After all, America had overthrown one Iranian government. Why wouldn’t they try another one?”