Embassy seizure four decades ago leaves a legacy of bitterness between Iran and the United States 

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The State Department said the event will serve as “a reminder of the long history of malign behavior by the Iranian regime and the danger it has posed to the United States and the world over the past 40 years.”

As they do every year on the anniversary of the takeover, Iranians will stage an anti-American protest outside the former embassy, which has been turned into a museum run by a militia group affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. A large turnout is expected amid spiraling tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The two events underscore how four decades have not diminished the symbolic power of the hostage crisis in the poisonous state of relations between the two countries. 

Though most Americans and Iranians were not yet born when the takeover happened, it has been cemented into an enduring image each country has of the other as an implacable enemy. That has made it difficult for the governments to establish a new relationship, as the United States and Vietnam did in forming a “partnership” after a war that killed 58,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese.

With Iran, the rancor has remained. Rarely a week goes by without a senior U.S. official accusing Iranian leaders of being “bloodthirsty,” warmongers or some similarly disparaging description.

“The decision to jail our diplomats has cast a 40-year shadow over our relations with the regime, which still takes innocent Americans hostage and uses them for political gain,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran. 

Gary Sick, the principal White House aide on Iran in 1979, calls the hostage episode “the original sin” in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. 

“It has become baked in to American foreign policy, to such a degree that, even when it’s contrary to our basic interests, we simply can’t escape it,” said Sick, now a retired professor from Columbia University. “The Iranians have exactly the same problem. The hard-liners say, ‘You can’t deal with the Americans, they’re treacherous, they’re our enemy.’ They mean it when they say, ‘Death to America.’ In my view, the hostage crisis is always there, just under the surface.”

For Iranians, the foundation for its animosity toward the United States dates back to 1953, when a CIA-backed coup ousted an elected prime minister who had nationalized Iran’s oil. That restored the shah to the throne for more than two decades, but he was himself deposed with the 1979 revolution that led to the formation of the Islamic Republic. 

After the shah was allowed into the United States for medical treatment, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4 and took those in the pared-down American staff as hostages. For more than a year, until they were freed simultaneously with President Ronald Reagan replacing President Jimmy Carter, American television screens were filled with wrenching images of American diplomats being paraded blindfolded before the cameras while bearded young men shook their fists and shouted anti-American chants.

“The takeover of the American Embassy was in some ways the founding moment for the present regime in Iran,” said Mark Bowden, author of “Guests of the Ayatollah,” an account of the hostage crisis. “A big part of the rationale for this mullah regime in Iran is hatred of the United States and the fear that the United States is going to return and meddle with Iran’s politics.”

Over the years, a succession of American and Iranian presidents took tentative steps to put relations on a better footing. Usually their efforts came to nothing, further entrenching the mutual mistrust.

In 40 years of lows, one of the most volatile points came in the “tanker war” in the late 1980s. The United States reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers and sent naval ships as escorts through the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war after Iranian mines damaged U.S. ships. There was a brief naval battle between U.S. and Iranian ships, and a U.S. Navy ship mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 people aboard.

President Barack Obama tried to change the dynamic with the negotiation of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that lifted many sanctions in exchange for Iran accepting limits on its nuclear program. President Trump withdrew from the agreement, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saying it did not address other grievances with Iran’s behavior. Since U.S. sanctions have returned, relations have plummeted, accelerated by attacks on Saudi oil facilities that the United States blames on Iran.

Many scholars say the embassy takeover might have faded from public consciousness if Iran had not kept doing things to reinforce the belief that the Islamic Republic’s behavior and strategy have not changed much — including its support for militias around the region, terrorism and assassinations on other continents and ballistic missile tests.

“The bad image Iran has around the world is because of its bad behavior in the region, rather than because it took hostages 40 years ago,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. “If the American public could forgive and forget Vietnam, it could have forgiven hostage-taking.”

The embassy takeover is being resurrected as a historic touchstone amid Tehran’s activities in the Persian Gulf and the responses from U.S. diplomats.

“With the current tension after the Trump administration left the JCPOA and the tough rhetoric out of Washington, it reminds people that the U.S. is not ready to go beyond that episode of history,” said Hadi Semati, a prominent Iranian political scientist, of the decision to abandon the nuclear deal. “Right now, it is coming back, in a sense, as a reminder for a new generation.”

Barry Rosen, the press attache at the embassy who was among those taken captive, will spend Monday on Capitol Hill speaking on a United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) panel about the continuing animosity. He said the bitterness he sees coming from Washington and Tehran seems more profound than ever. That is particularly true among the former captives, he said.

“And if you look at U.S.-Iran relations, they stayed embittered over years because of the continual hostage taking by Iran,” he said. “It seems to be part and parcel of Iranian foreign policy.”

Mark Wallace, the head of UANI, said the hostage crisis may rarely be mentioned anymore, but the view of Iran as a hostile adversary is drilled into the American psyche. In echoes of 1979, when Iranians called the embassy and its jailed diplomats “a den of espionage,” at least five American citizens are imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges considered baseless. 

“It started with hostage-taking in the embassy, and we have people held hostage there right now,” Wallace said.

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