Thirty-Five Years After Hostage Crisis, Tehran Faces Another Choice Between Revolution and Realpolitik

Thirty-five years ago this week, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radical students presented the leadership of the country’s still-unfinished revolution with a crisis and a critical choice. They could have evicted the students and defused the situation, consistent with international law and diplomatic protocol, just as they had with previous incidents of unruly activism. Instead, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s spiritual leader, quickly lauded the occupation — a decision calculated to advance the cause of the revolution but consciously indifferent to the nation’s needs.

Today, Khomeini’s heirs are facing another pivotal choice: will they undertake the compromises necessary to defuse the crisis over the country’s nuclear program? Or will they once again indulge in revolutionary imperatives at the expense of Iran’s relations with the world and the interests of its citizens?

The Islamic Republic has wrestled with this dilemma since its inception, oscillating between recalcitrance and pragmatism depending on the political calculus of the moment and often counterbalancing between the two simultaneously. With less than three weeks left before the deadline for negotiations between Tehran and six world powers, no one can say with any degree of certainty where the pendulum will rest between revolution and realpolitik.

Iran’s annual commemoration of the Embassy seizure offers some insight into state of the current debate between these alternatives. Officially, the event is still celebrated as a national holiday — a epic victory over the oppressor, a powerful strike against America’s nefarious influence over Iran — accompanied by the requisite burning of the American flag and chants of ‘marg bar amrika’ or ‘death to America.’ Unofficially, many Iranians — including a number of those who were involved in the Embassy takeover — take a decidedly different view, one that is informed by the memory of all that followed in the wake of the initial euphoria.

In the chaotic upheaval that characterized Tehran at the time, Khomeini’s decision 35 years ago to exploit the students’ action was a masterstroke. The Embassy seizure prompted the resignation of the moderate Provisional Government and secured the primacy of the Islamist faction of the revolutionary coalition. And the 14-month-long ordeal that followed elevated the ayatollah’s stature at home and among sympathetic audiences around the world, and amplified the country’s zeal for revolutionary change.

A generation later, however, the balance sheet from the confrontation appears decidedly less positive. The rupture with Washington left Tehran isolated and unprepared less than a year later when Saddam Hussein struck, launching a war that devastated the country. The application of American economic pressure, initiated in response to the Embassy seizure, carried a corrosive price tag for the country, and eventually became a tool sharpened to lethal effectiveness. And the regime’s official consecration of brutality against Americans identified as enemies of the revolution was swiftly turned against its own ranks. None of this was the outcome sought by many, or even most, of those millions who marched to oust the Shah.

For Iranians, acknowledging the fallout from the hostage crisis remains difficult, even dicey. Although Khomeini was famously adaptive and inventive, his successor has made fidelity to a deliberately narrowed interpretation of the “Imam’s line” a litmus test for participation in the political process. As a result, any public departure from the official narrative on the hostage crisis elicits reprisals.

Former student leader Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, now a silver-haired reformist political figure, was lambasted in the hardline Iranian press earlier this year after he expressed sympathy for the Americans who suffered as a result of the siege. Another of the original activists behind the Embassy seizure, Abbas Abdi, was harassed and assaulted after a 1998 meeting with one of the former hostages. Reformist president Mohammad Khatami spent much of his eight years in office backpedaling from an early CNN interview in which he acknowledged that “with regard to the hostage issue…I do know that the feelings of the great American people have been hurt, and of course I regret it.”

For that reason, an interview published earlier this week in a reformist Iranian newspaper, Sharq, and recounted in Al Monitor‘s “Iran Pulse” column by the always astute Arash Karami, struck me as a particularly positive sign. In the interview, Ali Khorram, a long-time Iranian diplomat who is serving as a senior advisor to Iran’s current foreign minister, made a number of forward-leaning statements on Iran’s relationship with Washington. On the issue of the U.S. Embassy seizure, which he called an “old wound,” Khorram questioned the utility of the annual commemoration, noting that “we have to take into consideration the view from outside” the country. “Sooner or later, we will have to be forced to do this,” he said. “If we want to think about working with international society, this has to be on the agenda.”

Khorram’s comments suggest the onset of new political maturity among the highest echelons of the Iranian leadership, particularly those closest to President Hassan Rouhani and his technocratic cabinet. A political establishment that for too long has sought to avoid relinquishing its revolutionary excesses has become increasingly aware that its policy choices have consequences and that Tehran will be required to sacrifice some of its ideological verities if it is to fully rehabilitate its relations with the world.

As I wrote on this blog back in March, when the hostage crisis was made newly relevant by Tehran’s selection of a new United Nations envoy who had collaborated in the episode, “if they hope to engineer Iran’s full return to the community of nations, Iranians will have to accept responsibility for their own part in what President Obama described a few weeks ago in a solicitous understatement as “our difficult history.”

There is, however, no firm evidence that the creeping realism of the Iranian political establishment has impressed the man who matters most — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who has ultimate authority over Iran’s Islamic system. Khamenei is capable of pragmatism; in fact, he has extolled the concept as “heroic flexibility,” an endorsement of diplomatic maneuvering that was widely misinterpreted as endorsing compromise on the nuclear issue. But can he yield, as Khomeini did on multiple occasions, and sacrifice the mandates of the revolution — its centrifuges and its stockpiles of nuclear fuel — in service of the nation’s compelling interests in a meaningful reintegration into the world economy? The answer will reveal itself in the outcome to these last, frantic weeks of nuclear diplomacy.