Washington and Tehran dial up war of words as risk of another military action in the Middle East rises.
Tehran – For close to four decades, the US embassy in downtown Tehran has been preserved in situ, although its diplomatic functions have long since ceased.
The 1979 hostage crisis, during which a group of Iranian students stormed the embassy and held dozens of Americans captive for 444 days, marked its final operational chapter. Although the hostages were released in early 1981 after the two countries struck a deal, the embassy did not reopen; instead, over the years, it gradually evolved as a monument to the bitter relations between Iran and the United States.
The embassy building – which still contains much of the old equipment used by US embassy staff to send coded messages – became a collection point for anti-American posters, sculptures and paintings. In years past, officials have opened its doors to mark special occasions, such as the anniversary of the hostage crisis. But a few months ago, it was formally established as a museum accessible to the public year-round – and the timing, coming on the heels of the election of US President Donald Trump, is no coincidence.
“One of the reasons [the museum was opened] was the release of the US movie Argo. Most parts of that film were fabricated,” Pouyan, a 24-year-old museum volunteer who declined to give his last name, told Al Jazeera in between explaining the various exhibits.
“A second reason was the election of the new US firebrand, President Trump,” Pouyan added. “As he takes over, we want people to see the reality of what happened … [Here], they see the real face of American democracy.”
Since Trump’s rise to power late last year, US rhetoric towards Iran has grown markedly more hostile.
Analysts have described the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal as one of the few success stories to emerge from the controversial Middle East policy of Trump’s predecessor. But Trump, who has refused to concede any triumphs to former President Barack Obama, vowed during his campaign to tear up what he described as the “worst deal ever negotiated”.
The rhetoric intensified within weeks of Trump taking office, as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis labelled Iran the world’s “single biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. The president refused to rule out military action after Iran carried out ballistic-missile tests, noting on Twitter: “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump’s aggressive posturing with his own tweet, saying that Iran was “unmoved” by the threats and would “never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defence”.
Payam Mohseni, the director of Harvard University’s Iran Project, noted that in light of Iran’s “long arm” in conflicts throughout the Middle East, the Trump administration cannot approach any major regional crisis without dealing with Iran in some capacity. “Iran will be a top priority for Trump’s Middle East policy, and whether he chooses to increase tensions or de-escalate, he will be forced to deal with Iran over issues ranging from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to Persian Gulf security in the Middle East,” Mohseni told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Trump’s fiery rhetoric has been “a gift in disguise” for Iran’s leaders, Mohseni added.
“For Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Trump represents the unveiled face of American policy towards the world – which, of course, caricatures the real difference between American politicians,” Mohseni said. “However, for the Iranian leadership, the leadership of the American political system is less important than actual American policy, which in their calculations has consistently aimed to contain and undermine Iran throughout the past few decades.”
These decades of tension are evidenced within the walls of the embassy museum, where one-sided exhibits paint the hostage crisis as a victory exposing the extent of the subterfuge perpetrated by the “Great Satan”.
On a recent afternoon, a handful of tourists strolled among the various artworks outside the embassy’s front entrance. Labelled the “Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance”, the lawn is packed with anti-US and anti-Israel political statements: One poster shows drops of blood raining down and burying the Statue of Liberty; another depicts the US flag with guns for its stripes; a third features an image of the devil with the caption “I love Israel”.
Walking into the lobby, visitors find an array of newspaper clippings criticising the US response to the hostage crisis. The tour continues upstairs, where Pouyan points to a “top-secret” chamber with a heavy, vault-like door, inside of which the US ambassador held confidential meetings. This was one of the first places the students swarmed back in 1979, curious to see what was inside, he said.
Other exhibits show smashed communications devices and encryption equipment, along with two massive paper shredders that US embassy staff used to destroy sensitive documents – some of which the students later painstakingly pieced back together. Student graffiti decries the facility as a “den of espionage”, while placards on the wall cite the “treachery and penetration” of US plans to interfere in governments of the region.
One donated sculpture, which appears to be bronzed but on closer inspection is made of papier-mache, depicts students entangled in American flags as they clamber over the embassy gates.
The extreme anti-US messaging of the kind seen at the museum – in addition to the continuous use of soft power tools, such as Iran’s extensive regional media in the Arabic language – “are part and parcel of Iran’s narrative for expanding its ideological power in the Middle East and beyond”, explained Massoumeh Torfeh, a research associate at the London School of Economics specialising in Iran.
“They view it as their pride and their strength,” Torfeh told Al Jazeera. “Khamenei still models himself on Ayatollah Khomeini, and has not as yet taken Iran out of that revolutionary mode 38 years later. In almost every speech, he makes references to the legacy of Khomeini. Yet there is hardly any legacy that could be put to Khamenei’s own name once he passes away. And his one and only image, sitting or standing in his long black robe on a raised platform addressing his loyal followers, is symbolic of the fact that he has been frozen in the same political position, almost too worried to do anything different to his predecessor.”
Iran’s “Death to America” rhetoric will not change “unless the Islamic Republic itself undergoes drastic reform after the death of Khamenei”, Torfeh added. “Even then Iran is likely to become more hardline with [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] moving centre stage and gradually turning Iran into a military theocracy.”
Meanwhile, back at the embassy museum, a few visitors linger in the garden under an early evening sun. Alexis Keppenne, a 21-year-old tourist from Germany, questions whether the extreme rhetoric within this compound is harmful or helpful, noting that the museum was not what he expected: “I thought it would show more about the hostages’ captivity, not just about the US espionage. The captivity is a pretty important part of the story.”
Local visitors Farid Yaghoobi and his wife, Arezoo, said they found the exhibits interesting – but as to the larger theme of Iran-US relations, Yaghoobi shook his head: “We’re not too optimistic about relations improving anytime soon under Trump.”
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole