The similarities are many: a Middle Eastern country, a fanatical leader, calls for a holy war, U.S. citizens being held against their will.

For many of the estimated 100,000 Iranian Americans living in the Washington area, the current American antipathy toward Iraq brings back vivid memories of the wrath directed at them here when their homeland occupied center stage a dozen years ago during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Since then, the Iranian American community, generally well educated and prosperous, has been working to normalize the once-venomous attitudes that many Americans had toward its members. The progress has been slow. The healing, they say, has only recently begun in earnest.

The escalating tensions in the Middle East brought on by the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait may provide the best measure of American understanding of the Middle East and American willingness to separate the actions of foreign governments from their people at home and abroad.

"It hasn't opened any old wounds or pushed our progress back," said Ali Homayounfar, who came to the United States in 1982 and is one of an estimated million Iranians living in the United States. "But it shows that the sentiments that were created years back are still there -- the mistrust."

One recent event showed the progress that Iranian Americans feel they have made toward understanding.

In May, the Iranian American Republican Council was inaugurated, an event that amounted to a public proclamation that Iranians in the United States are ready to actively participate in the national political system. Sens. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), as well as Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), made appearances at a reception at the Capitol Hill Club.

A month later, another event showed the challenges that remain. Many of the same members of the council discovered how deeply rooted anti-Iranian sentiments are in this country when an earthquake killed 40,000 Iranians. Iranian Americans worked around the clock after the quake to organize aid, eventually sending $4 million in food and medicine to their homeland.

But American response to the disaster was minimal, some Iranian Americans said, attributing the unusual lack of American generosity to lingering hostilities toward Iran.

One woman, Golnoush Khaleghi Acekert, who heads the Rouhollah Khaleghi Orchestra in Washington, organized a benefit concert for earthquake victims. When she spoke on a local radio talk show to promote the concert, she said, not a single caller responded. A few months earlier, she had appeared on the same talk show to discuss her orchestra in general terms. The phones rang off the hook, she said.

Homayounfar, who is vice president of the Iranian American Republican Council, speaks of American sentiments stemming from the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that began a 444-day ordeal for 53 Americans held hostage.

"When I got here you could still feel the aftereffects" of the embassy takeover, he said. He said he encountered a few instances of people reacting negatively when they found out he was Iranian, but Homayounfar never denied he was Iranian, as many others did.

"I think it's fair to say that the American public was not the most sophisticated of people in terms of international relations," said Marty Youssefiani, who works in a Washington public relations firm and was a high school senior in New Jersey when the hostage crisis broke. "The public didn't know who we were. One minute they see on television there are people burning the U.S. flag . . . holding their countrymen hostage. And then on the other hand, they see us here trying to live our daily lives. That, Americans could not understand."

Although Youssefiani never had any problems, he said there were times -- especially among strangers -- when he said he was Greek or Italian.

Nasr Sateri, owner of Kolbeh, an Iranian restaurant in Georgetown, said such masking of their nationality was common. American attitudes were unforgiving, he said, having drastic effects on businesses such as his own.

"A lot of Iranian businesses were hurt at the time," he said. "I went bankrupt." He said he owned a furniture store at the time in Silver Spring.

Nine years after opening his restaurant, Sateri says, he feels no qualms about having a sign with Persian lettering on his front window.

The education that Americans did get about Iran during the hostage crisis only made things worse for those living in the United States, said a local Iranian journalist, who asked not to be named.

"Nightline was the biggest problem," he said. "Every night they showed an opening shot of hostages blindfolded. That played havoc. You could see those kind of stories got Americans really mad."

History was distorted, geography was unclear and cultures blurred, he said. The result was a sentiment he saw nightly when he drove on Route 50 home. Along one overpass was scrawled a painted message: "Nuke Iran."

Fariborz Ghadar, a professor at George Washington University, said people blamed Iran for everything in the Middle East, many not knowing that the Persian culture and Arabian culture are historically distinct.

And while Ghadar said the backlash could have been worse in other countries, "It still hurt because of local misunderstanding of what was going on."

Youssefiani expressed concern that the complexity of the Iraqi situation will only add to the confusion.

"If war breaks out tomorrow," he said, "it will be interesting for me as an immigrant to see how the American public will judge Iraqis or any Arab, or any person from the Middle East."