The Seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran: 31 Years Later

"All propaganda is lies--even when it is telling the truth," says George Orwell. Yet a careful examination of propaganda provides significant insight into the regime that produced it. The Islamic Republic of Iran's propaganda on the occasion of the 31st anniversary of the November 4, 1979, seizure of the United States Embassy in Tehran is a case in point.

Sobh-e Sadegh insists that the embassy takeover was a symbol of the "unity of all political factions within the regime in their fight against the Great Satan."

Sobh-e Sadegh, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), hails November 4 as "the day of humiliation of world imperialism," but goes on to reveal why this type of regime has prohibited normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries for more than three decades rather than "humiliate" the United States.

Sobh-e Sadegh insists that the embassy takeover was a symbol of the "unity of all political factions within the regime in their fight against the Great Satan." Thus, the author admits that the broad political alliance which defeated the Shah's regime required foreign enemies like the United States for internal unification, an essential component of the regime's very survival.

The author also stresses that November 4 marked the day when the "liberal political movements and those gravitating towards or dependent on the United States parted ways from the followers of the Line of the Imam [Rouhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic]." This vague statement references Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan's transitional government which resigned in protest over the embassy takeover. Here, the author involuntarily shows that the Islamic Republic continuously provokes crises in Iran's relations with foreign powers and facilitates a state of permanent political crisis to purge and "purify" the political system of undesirable political elements.

Sobh-e Sadegh's columnist also argues: "Three decades after seizure of the Den of Espionage, it still symbolizes the unity of political groups of the Line of the Imam and the Leader and provides a distinction with deviating political movements dependent on the foreigners." This point is of great policy relevance to those in the United States who advocate normalization of diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. The regime appears incapable of publicly committing itself to normalization of relations. How could the Islamic Republic's leadership accuse its political opponents of being American agents if the regime were to normalize relations with the United States? This constitutes a particular source of concern to an illegitimate regime which is finding it increasingly difficult to redirect public anger away from its own shortcomings and towards external enemies.

The anniversary of the embassy seizure also provides an opportunity to reexamine the role of the IRGC in the hostage taking. Most historians blame obscure student groups who were "following the Line of the Imam," leftist groups, and even the Soviet Embassy in Tehran of masterminding the seizure of the embassy. However, the IRGC was given formal responsibility for protecting the embassy in the face of violent demonstrators. Interestingly, 45 of 79 hostage takers identified by this author were either current or future members of the IRGC. According to one hostage taker, even the attackers' sandwiches were prepared the night before at the canteen of the Revolutionary Guards. Leading IRGC commanders Mohsen Rezaei and Mohsen Rafiqdoust were some of the first to arrive at the embassy where they confiscated documents that were later used against members of the transitional government. These circumstances suggest a much more politically active role for the IRGC than hitherto known. The event also demonstrates what methods the IRGC is likely to use should foreign powers try to reach accommodation with any political faction not aligned with the Revolutionary Guards.

Thirty-one years after the seizure of the United States Embassy in Tehran, several known perpetrators of the attack have repented of their participation. They have realized how their actions have shaped politics in Iran. Some have themselves become victims of this ruthless political system, which constantly looks for and finds fifth columnists. It is this side of the Atlantic where some are still unwilling to accept reality.

Ali Alfoneh is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Mira (on the wall)/Flickr/Creative Commons

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About the Author

 

Ali
Alfoneh
  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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