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Iran And The Legacy Of The Embassy Seizure

Propaganda adorns the walls surrounding the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Today marks 34 years since the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran. In Tehran, large rent-a-mobs and an array of mostly hard-line politicians have marked the day as they have every year, with boisterous anti-American rallies featuring the revolutionary slogan "marg bar Amrika" (death to America). By contrast, in the United States, few will commemorate this anniversary; the former hostages are mostly retired, and the sense of futility and frustration bred by this episode is hardly one that U.S. policymakers seek to celebrate.

And yet in many ways, the hostage crisis remains the central episode in the bilateral estrangement, perhaps even more powerful in the American psyche than in Iran. And in the run-up to the highly anticipated next round of talks on the Iranian nuclear standoff later this week, both states would do well to appreciate the costs of the crisis and to take a lesson from the incredible feat of negotiations that produced its resolution.

For Iran's revolutionaries, the Embassy seizure was a catharsis, an opportunity to vent revolutionary passions against a 'Great Satan' that had become the convenient repository for all the grievances of the Iranian people. By the time the hostages were freed in January 1981, the immediate precipitants of the crisis had become obsolete — the Shah was dead, the country was at war with a far more urgent threat, and the revolutionary promises of freedom and independence had devolved into a more sinister and constrained horizon. Over the ensuing decades, a post-revolutionary generation emerged, and now constitutes the majority of the Iranian population — these young people have literally no memory of the hostage crisis. Some of the same students who seized the Embassy came to regret what the revolution had become, and became powerful advocates of liberal reform. Though hard-line forces continue to seek to punish Washington for its many perceived sins, and though resentment of American policies remains more salient than is commonly appreciated, the furies that produced the embassy seizure are mostly spent.

By contrast, the Embassy seizure quietly remains the foundation for American understanding of Iran. It foreshadowed insidious risks that few had seriously contemplated before and exposed a hatred for this country and its values that struck most Americans as incomprehensible. For many Americans, the Embassy seizure demonstrated the fundamental irrationality of Iran's Islamic Republic, and the threat posed by such revolutionary militancy. Until 9/11 catapulted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to household names, Iran remained synonymous with Islamic radicalism, and until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became a routine subject of mockery on late-night television, the only image that most Americans associated with Iran was one of burning flags and blindfolded diplomats.

This episode remains an inescapable backdrop for American views of Iran, at least as powerful as Iranian outrage over perceived U.S. injustices, such as U.S. involvement in the coup that ousted Iran's populist prime minister in 1953 and the Reagan Administration's assistance to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Despite today's pageantry in Tehran, the passions for the annual commemoration have largely abated in Iran, but the alienation and mistrust provoked by a leadership that abused individual representatives of a sovereign state and violated its basic obligations under international law and custom remain real even today, 34 years later.

Many diplomats now at the highest ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service came of age in the wake of the Embassy seizure, and all that its legacy would entail for American diplomats posted to unfriendly states. And while the senior ranks of the Obama Administration today are relatively precocious, surely they remember — as do I — the yellow ribbons and prayer vigils of the hostage crisis. Then-presidential candidate Senator John McCain drew headlines and raised eyebrows in 2007 when he jokingly broke into a refrain of "bomb, bomb Iran," but I'm probably not the only Washingtonian who could recall the rest of the refrain, which included the memorable phrase "we're gonna turn Tehran into a parking lot."

The legacy matters, but it does not rise to the level of deal-breaker. The Obama Administration is eager to make the most of the possibility of a historic foreign policy win in a region with few other positive breakthroughs. And U.S. leaders appreciate the subtle openings within Iran that have enabled a preliminary sense of progress on the nuclear impasse, including most recently Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's public affirmation of support for the negotiating team. As a result, the nuclear negotiations with Iran — set to resume in Geneva later this week — will not rise or fall on the basis on any tortured memories of the Embassy seizure. You will not hear U.S. policymakers from any party insist upon an apology for 1979, or even demand compensation for the victims of this episode (an issue that has been fraught with legal and strategic considerations.) But Iranians should understand that the legacy of this misdeed continues to shape the views of their American interlocutors, just as Washington has come to understand that the festering wounds of past U.S. policy toward Tehran informs the possibilities from the other side.

For the task at hand — resolving the nuclear standoff — both Americans and Iranians should be guided by the settlement that ended the crisis, the Algiers Accords. In an environment of profound mistrust and antipathy, negotiators from Washington and Tehran managed to hammer out an accord that satisfied each government's essential demands and managed to survive both the contentious domestic politics of the moment as well as the evolving trends in the bilateral dynamic. Many factors contributed to the success of the process, including the important mediation of the Algerian government and the fact that the eventual agreement built upon a multiplicity of failed efforts and the emergence of compelling financial and strategic exigencies for Tehran.

One critical dimension of the American effort to end that crisis was the application of financial pressure, through a wide-ranging assets freeze and the application of a variety of economic sanctions. Since that time, sanctions have remained at the core of U.S. policy toward Tehran, and they loom even larger as the two sides contemplate the prospects for an agreement on the nuclear issue. The technical dimensions of a prospective resolution to the nuclear impasse have been examined in great depth, most recently by my Brookings colleague Robert Einhorn in a speech posted here and summarized here. The economic components of any possible resolution warrant at least as much responsible consideration. Over the next several days, in the lead-up to the latest round of talks in Geneva on the Iranian nuclear program, Iran@Saban will be examining the issue of sanctions. We encourage your comments via email at or via Twitter at @maloneysuzanne, and we look forward to contributing to a robust debate on an important aspect of the ongoing diplomacy.