When the embassy opened more than four decades previously, Tehran had been a different place, more a village than a city. The United States was then just one among many foreign powers with diplomatic missions in Iran. Before the chancery stood a low, decorative wooden fence that allowed an unobstructed view of the beautiful gardens from Takht-e-Jamshid, which was then just a quiet side street, paved with cobblestones. In those days, the new embassys openness and its distance from the row of major missions on busy Ferdowsi Avenue contributed to Americas image as a different kind of Western power, one that had no imperial designs.
In the years since, Tehran itself had grown into a noisy, crowded city, a bland, featureless, unplanned jumble of urgent humanity that flowed daily in great rivers of cars through uninteresting miles of low, pale brown and gray two- and three-story boxlike buildings. Takht-e-Jamshids quaint cobblestones had long since been paved and the avenue widened. In daylight it was clogged with cars, motorbikes, and buses. The embassys main entrance, Roosevelt Gate, was named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose distant cousin CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Theodores grandson, had helped engineer the 1953 coup détat that toppled an elected Iranian government and replaced it with the shah. At the time, the coup had powerful Iranian backers and was welcomed by many in the country, but today it was seen simply as a tawdry American stunt, another example of cynical CIA meddling in the Third World.
By the fall of 1979, in the receding tide of the revolution, the old embassy had become a provocation. It was moored like an enemy battleship just a stones throw from the street, a fact demonstrated repeatedly. For a country in a fit of Islamist, nationalist, and increasingly anti-American fervor, such a grand and central presence in the capital city was a daily thumb in the eye. Lately most of the harassment had been relatively minor. The walls that now surrounded Henderson High and its campus were covered with insults and revolutionary slogans and were topped by three feet of curved and pointed steel bars. A few days earlier a band of young men had sneaked into the compound and were caught shinnying up the big pole in front of the chancery to take down the American flag. The marines had since greased the pole. As a defense against rocks and an occasional gunshot from passing motorists, all of the windows facing front had been layered with bulletproof plastic panels and sandbags. The chancery looked like a fort.
While the Americans inside saw these changes as purely defensive, the picture they presented strongly encouraged suspicion. The embassy was an enemy foothold behind the lines of the revolution. Washington had been the muscle behind the shahs rule, and a big part of throwing off the monarchy had been the desire to break Irans decades-long fealty to Uncle Sam. Yet here the embassy still stood. Those Iranians who supported the United States and there were many still among the prosperous middle and upper classes prayed that its obdurate presence meant the game wasnt over, that the free world was not really going to abandon them to the bearded clerics. But these were an embattled, endangered minority. To the great stirred mass of Iranians, afire with the dream of a perfect Islamist society, the embassy was a threat. Surely the architects of evil behind those walls were plotting day and night. What was going on inside? What plots were being hatched by the devils coming and going from its gates?
Why was no one stopping them?
Excerpted from Guests of the Ayatollah, (c) 2006 Mark Bowden. Reproduced by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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