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US embassy occupation, 31 years later

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US embassy occupationBy Alireza Ronaghi 

On November 4, 2010, Iran marks the national day of fight against what the government calls a "day of national confrontation against World Imperialism".

It is the 31st anniversary of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, an event that not only changed the dynamic of Iran-US relations but also created a chain of events that are still affecting Iran's foreign and domestic affairs.

The US sanctions that were imposed on Iran shortly after the takeover are still in place, although they have been relaxed at times. The diplomatic ties between Iran and the US remained severed since the takeover of the embassy.

The anti-American stance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which many see as its main attribute, became prevalent as a result of the event. The newborn Islamic Republic did not want the US as its enemy and was forced to accept it as a consequence to the occupation of US embassy in Tehran.

It is now clear that the group of Islamist students who climbed the walls of the US embassy in central Tehran on November 4, 1979, did not intend to keep it under occupation for as long as they did - 444 days with 52 American hostages.

The students merely wanted to send a message to the US government and show the resentment of Iranian people based on the perception that the US had granted the deposed Shah refuge on its soil. Besides, they might have been driven by a rivalry with Communist students, who were rumoured  to have attacked the embassy in previous days.

But the events that followed turned what was meant to be an isolated act by a bunch of revolutionary students into a nationwide movement - a milestone in Iran's history which shaped the future of Iran's foreign policies for decades to come.

Soon after the capture of the US embassy, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, praised the militant students and called the occupation the "second revolution". Daily demonstrations were held in front of the US mission venue, calling for all US hostages to be put on trial.

Surprised and emboldened by the unexpected support, the students looked into the top-secret documents at the embassy hoping to find out what the US diplomats were up to. They put together truckloads of shredded documents and, based on their findings, dubbed the US embassy and American "spy nest".

The students claimed that the Americans had been in contact with some Iranian politicians in planning what was widely seen as another coup attempt, which brought back bitter memories of the Operation Ajax, a US-backed coup d'etat that toppled the national government of Mohammd Mosaddeq in 1953.

Finally, the failed attempt of the then-US president, Jimmy Carter, to have American special forces rescue the hostages with the assistance of Iranian counterrevolutionary forces in April 1980, known as Operation Eagle Claw, had a determining effect on Iranian minds, kickstarting the perpetual hostility between Iran and America.

Thirty-one years on, Iranian students gather in the biggest congregation of school children in Iran to reiterate what has been perceived as the main pillar of the Islamic Republic politics: Opposition to the global arrogance, a nick name for the US and other Western powers.

It is one of the rare occasions of a school year for students who participate: Skipping a boring day at school, walking on cordoned-off streets with classmates, shouting at the top of their lungs and going home with a smile.

But for the government - struggling to strike a balance between its anti-Western slogans and the urgency to lower the pressure by foreign powers - it is a very important day. It is supposed to send a message to the Western governments, especially the US, that the people's anti-American sentiments are still fresh after 31 years.

That image was tarnished last year when opposition demonstrators took advantage of the occasion and took to the streets in an attempt to show their disapproval for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election in June 2009. This year, things will be different, as the opposition has been pushed back and there have been no opposition rallies since February.

The government's mindset was simple and clear: There's no caving in to the pressure, from within or outside the country.

Four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions, augmented by additional embargoes set on Iran's foreign trade and banking by the US and the EU, have been imposed on Iran in an attempt to force it to stop enriching uranium.

Iran has defied the call by the world powers so far.

And now, relieved from the pressure of the opposition, Iran says it's ready to hold talks with the so called P 5+1, five permanent members of the UNSC and Germany, by November 10. Although no one expects the negotiations to bear a groundbreaking result, there are signs that Iran wants the talks to work.
 
Although the country has refused to stop or even slow down its nuclear program in compliance with the calls of the world powers, Iran's economy has plunged into its worst conditions since the eight-year war with Iraq in the '80s.

Also, Ahmadinejad has shown that his administration, enjoying an unprecedented full support of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the most forthcoming administration in the Islamic Republic history in terms of its will to do business with the US.

But to resume ties with the archenemy takes time. And Iranian negotiators will refer to the rally before the building that formerly housed the US embassy in Tehran as a sign that reconciliation with the West cannot be reached overnight. 

The question would be whether the US and its allies are willing to let the Islamic Republic have the time it needs.

Alireza Ronaghi has covered Iran for international news organisations for over a decade.


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