The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Strategic anti-Americanism in Iran from the hostage crisis to nuclear talks

An Iranian woman stands in front of the painted wall of the former U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4 in Tehran, the scene of a demonstration to mark the anniversary of its storming by student protesters that triggered a hostage crisis. (Atta Kenareatta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and changed U.S.-Iranian relations for a generation. Ironically, their shocking move had less to do with the United States than with the tenuous, turbulent domestic politics of the days following the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Those radical Islamists tapped into widespread anti-Americanism in Iran to consolidate the post-revolutionary regime in 1979. Thirty-five years later, the United States remains central to Iran’s domestic power struggle, but now it is massive pro-American sentiment that defines the country’s vicious internal competition.

To understand how various actors use the United States in this domestic rivalry, it is necessary to revisit the hostage crisis. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the U.S. Embassy was not seized in response to the admission of the deposed shah to the United States. To be sure, the reluctant decision of the Carter administration to allow the dying dictator in brought back memories of the 1953 CIA-backed coup and did not help reduce growing anti-American sentiment in Iran. But the ideological challenge posed by the anti-imperialist leftists was perceived as far more dangerous than the potential U.S. threat.

In fact, the clerical disciples of the former supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as his liberal associates, were secretly in close communications with U.S. representatives before, during and after the revolution to assure them that the new regime would remain anti-communist and Western-friendly if they removed the shah and neutralized the army. In sharp contrast with today’s widespread fear that any regime change in the Middle East might lead to an Islamist government, in the Cold War era, the West dreaded that the Islamists would be overwhelmed by highly organized and popular communist activists. The latter had long penetrated the region, including Iranian society and intelligentsia.

The fear, indeed, turned out to be real. After the shah fled, a wide range of Marxist actors quickly overwhelmed the political scene. Many armed and unarmed activists who had long resided in exile, underground or in prison rushed to appropriate “their” revolution. Leftist students, professors, teachers and workers dominated the universities, high schools, factories and labor unions. In their daily statements, papers and meetings, they relentlessly accused the new Islamic Republic and the interim nationalist government of being in bed with American imperialism. In this highly anti-U.S. climate, Islamist and nationalist actors were losing the war of narratives. Unlike the nationalists, however, Khomeini and his followers turned to the left, and disarmingly adopted an anti-imperialist language, which eventually surpassed that of their rivals.

Less than a year after the Islamic Revolution, hundreds of Islamist students decided to demonstrate who was truly anti-American. They chose an act that would constitute unmistakable proof. On Nov. 4, 1979, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line climbed up the walls of the U.S. Embassy, overwhelmed the security forces and took 66 diplomats hostage. They stole the anti-American torch from the patently anti-imperialist, and now stunned, left.

With one blow, both the nationalists and the Marxist left were paralyzed before being totally eliminated. The interim government fell due to the growing interference of the clergy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Although Khomeini had rejected Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s previous resignation attempts, this time he accepted it without any hesitation. In this major political coup, the left went mute and the Islamists gained an upper hand. Within days after the seizure of the embassy, Khomeini turned the tables and called the leftist groups American stooges: “My ears did not hear that they supported [the seizure of the U.S. Embassy]. If they are not pro-American, why didn’t they support [this act]?”

It is not clear if Khomeini was aware of the plan to take over the embassy. Nine months earlier, a number of armed Marxist men had occupied the embassy for a few hours only to be criticized by Khomeini and kicked out by the armed Islamic Revolutionary Committees, known as Komitehs. There were rumors that they were planning to attack the embassy again before their radical Islamist rivals outbid and preempted them. Recently released memoirs and documents suggest that at least Khomeini’s son and close confidant, Ahmad, had been informed.

Regardless, Khomeini and the rest of his disciples soon came fully on board and tried to use the event to further eliminate their adversaries. In fact, the occupation of the U.S. Embassy opened a whole new arsenal for Khomeini and his followers to push their rivals aside. Despite international condemnation of the takeover and its impact in isolating the state, Khomeini’s faction benefited from it enormously. His disciples could shape the elected and appointed bodies and thus effectively institutionalize Velayat-e Faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurist) in those critical days of debating the shape of the political system in the Assembly of Experts for Constitution.

As various parties were preparing for the first presidential and parliamentary, or Majlis, elections, the hostage crisis, and later the Iraqi invasion of Iran, were effectively employed toward silencing and intimidating their opponents.

Since the hostage crisis, political actors in Iran have mastered the art of using external challenges for domestic gains. Meanwhile, three decades of “death to America” chants have not yielded many tangible results for the population, most of whom have been born and raised after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy. In 2002, to the dismay of Iran’s conservatives, a public poll revealed that the majority of Iranians backed normalizing ties with the United States. Oddly enough, the controversial poll was conducted by Abbas Abdi, one of the leaders of the radical students who seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979. On Nov. 4, 2002, on the 23rd anniversary of that event, Abdi was arrested for spying for the United States.

A decade earlier, then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had proposed a rapprochement before Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sidelined him. Later, presidents Mohammad Khatami and even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entertained the same idea in the late 1990s and 2000s. Both were also silenced and settled for better relations with Europe and Russia.

But each time the call gets more aggressive as Iranian leaders become aware of the impact of this unexploited and yet dangerous reservoir for their domestic survival against the conservative establishment.

After winning a surprising election in June 2013, Iran’s pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, demonstrated his plan to go beyond Russia and the “old” Europe. Too weak or too invested in the animosity between Iran and the United States, these “Little Satans” could neither replace nor serve as a bridge with Washington. It was time to talk directly with the “Great Satan” or the “village chief,” as some argued. Riding the wave of his massive support, and taking advantage of Khamenei’s bruises from eight challenging years of overseeing a loose cannon, namely Ahmadinejad, Rouhani moved quickly. His “prudence and hope” government took an audacious Anglo-Saxon turn to release the country from what he perceived as a de facto network of hawks in Tehran and Washington.

Within weeks following Rouhani’s election, Britain and Iran announced their plan to reestablish direct diplomatic ties after the British Embassy was stormed by ultra-conservative vigilantes in November 2011. Soon afterward, Iranian lawmakers formed a parliamentary friendship group with Britain and, perhaps naively, hoped to eventually upgrade it to a parliamentary friendship group with the U.S. Congress.

In September 2013, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with his British counterpart, William Hague, and days later Rouhani and President Obama spoke on the phone to mark the first direct communication between the leaders of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The widespread ecstasy in Iran, apart from ultra-conservative circles, did not end even after Khamenei called Rouhani’s action “inappropriate.”

Since then, the conservative establishment has successfully slowed down Rouhani’s overtures, but it has failed to reverse them. Rouhani has proved to be much more passive than many observers expected. He has remained preposterously quiet in the face of mass executions, appalling violence against women and other human rights violations. His ministers have been impeached or on the verge of losing their jobs.

Yet, his honeymoon is not over. Rouhani is joined by a wide range of political actors, including former hostage takers who are eager to cultivate public support to compensate for their institutional weakness on an uneven playing field against the conservatives. These former-radicals-turned-reformists came to appreciate the benefits (not necessarily the values) of democracy, and eventually better relations with the United States, in their losing battle with the conservative establishment after Khomeini died in 1989. In June 2013, they joined forces with the pragmatists and helped Rouhani win the presidency.

Absurdly, the same internal political struggle that led to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran 35 years ago is now pushing the Islamic government toward a rapprochement with the United States. Just as the radical political elites instrumentally used widespread anti-Americanism to consolidate their position after the 1979 revolution, a coalition of pragmatists and reformists now cautiously hope to capitalize on pro-American sentiments to weaken their conservative rivals.

They are banking on success of the nuclear negotiations and consequently better relations with the United States. However, these actors are fully aware that all competing political factions have long mastered the game of instrumental use of foreign policy issues. As the conservative head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has recently warned, the “seditionists” are plotting to turn a possible victory in the nuclear negotiations into an electoral success in 2016, when the fate of the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts (a body that chooses the next supreme leader) will be decided.

Meanwhile, the conservative establishment continues to promote anti-Americanism to a shrinking constituency. Khamenei’s often-repeated description of the proponents of compromising with the United States as “either naive or intimidated” was uttered verbatim by the secretary general of Iran’s communist Tudeh Party 35 years ago. Khamenei views the unqualified fascination of Iranian youth with the United States as an outlier in a world where public opinion often disfavors the “Great Satan.”

Having closely studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Khamenei is hoping to engineer the return of anti-Americanism once the Iranian population sees the “hypocrisy” of the United States in the course of the ongoing nuclear negotiations and other interactions.

What does this mean for the United States? Ironically, Washington should ignore all of it.

Since 1978 and throughout the revolution, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra Affair, the Rafsanjani era and Khatami’s presidency, Washington has tried to communicate with Iran’s “moderates,” hoping to empower them. Yet each time, their rivals sabotaged the endeavor and the American half-hearted embrace served as the kiss of death.

While it is imperative for U.S. policymakers to understand the intricacies of Iranian factional politics, it is even more essential to stay away from them. The Islamic Republic is not a monolith, but the United States should treat it as such and not permit U.S. strategic interests to be influenced by Iran’s domestic politics. That is not to say that human rights violations should not be strongly condemned. But the rhetoric and policy of backing Iranian moderates should be dropped, even if such forces ask for support from Washington.

Those U.S. policymakers who look for an Iranian Mikhail Gorbachev should remember that no one, perhaps not even the last Soviet president himself, wants to be a Gorbachev. These hopes turn into gestures and policies that only provide ammunition to Iran’s paranoid ultra-conservatives, whose survival is primarily based on anti-Americanism.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is also a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.