When a group of radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy here 20 years ago and took Americans hostage, they shocked the world and changed the course of Iran's revolution. Today, some of the most prominent leaders among those students are changing history again--but this time as reform advocates, playing key roles in Iran's nascent democracy movement.
Abbas Abdi, one of the most conspicuous student leaders in 1979, is more likely these days to be shaking the hand of an American diplomat than burning an American flag. He now calls himself a liberal democrat and advocates a civil society, freedom of speech and the formation of political parties.
"We have no other choice but democratic change. We must promote civil society and open up our political institutions," Abdi said in an interview.
Abdi and the colleagues with whom he seized the embassy will not be chanting anti-American slogans alongside hard-liners outside the old U.S. Embassy building on Thursday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the takeover. "I don't take part in street demonstrations anymore and certainly do not condone violence," Abdi said in his consulting office across from Tehran University, where he counsels peaceful protest to today's student activists.
Hamid Asgarzadeh, another leading student radical in 1979, now sees political pluralism as the only path Iran can take to prosperity and stability. Masoumeh Ebtekar, a former student spokeswoman known as "Mary," is now better known as Iran's first female cabinet minister and a key ally of reformist President Mohammed Khatemi.
Habibollah Bitaraf, a student radical turned government technocrat, is a member of a reformist democratic political party. Mohammad Mousavi Khoeniha, the mastermind behind the embassy takeover, was condemned by a conservative court recently, and his reformist newspaper was shut down.
Many of the students involved in the takeover took divergent paths--service in the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, in which some died, or careers as government bureaucrats or security agents. None has emerged as a leader in the group of conservative Islamic clergymen that has ruled Iran for most of the 20 years since the revolution, symbolized by the ascendancy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the embassy takeover.
But several of the most prominent leaders in the takeover are now key players in Iran's 2nd of Khordad democratic movement. The 2nd of Khordad, the Iranian date equivalent to May 23, refers to the day of Khatemi's election in 1997. On that day, Iranians voted overwhelmingly for change, electing Khatemi on a platform of liberal democratic reforms.
Since his election, political and social freedoms have improved despite powerful conservative opposition that has led to high-profile clashes, including the banning of newspapers that support reform, the impeachment of a Khatemi cabinet minister and the jailing of a pro-Khatemi mayor.
Abdi has been one of the most visible reformists. As a columnist with the leftist daily Salam, now banned, he wrote critical articles about Iran's conservatives and sophisticated polemics on the need for democracy.
When a conservative-led media court ordered the closure of Salam last summer, Tehran University students protested on campus, leading to a violent encounter with police that left one student dead and spiraled into three days of street clashes.
When Abdi was a student, he was a member of the Anjoman-e-Eslami, or Islamic Association, a group of students who defied the Shah and followed the Khomeini camp after the revolution. Anjoman became the student mouthpiece for government actions throughout the 1980s.
Today's Anjoman-e-Eslami students are different. They support Khatemi, call for democracy and follow a religious philosopher who calls for separation of mosque and state. He is Abdol Karim Soroush, who views the intermingling of politics and religion as tainting religion.