Home > 1999-2002 from Middle East, Iran > Making an exhibition of the ‘Great Satan’

Making an exhibition of the ‘Great Satan’

November 2, 2001

by Guy Dinmore in Tehran

Roll up! Roll up! Twenty-two years after its dramatic seizure by Iran’s revolutionary students, the US embassy in Tehran is open for business once more – but this time to the world’s public as a permanent exhibition of the crimes of the “Great Satan”.

Its easy to find. Any taxi-driver knows the “Den of Spies”, its surrounding walls painted with murals of Irans revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the bravery of young soldiers, such as the boy who threw himself under an Iraqi tank with grenades strapped to his waist.

Inside, the newly seeded lawns are immaculate and the interior of the chancellery building has been freshly painted in light green, “good for the spirits and a sense of peace” as our guide noted.

Among Iranians there is a great curiosity to finally see inside what has been a Revolutionary Guards’ garrison and a school for especially selected children since the 1980s.

Groups are taken to the second floor where US marines and embassy staff made desperate phone-calls to Washington and their charge d’affaires who happened to be in talks with the Iranian foreign ministry at the time of the storming.

The windowless “glass room” is painted in black and contains a large perspex-lined cage where US diplomats would hold confidential briefings. A wax dummy of the last ambassador, William Sullivan, and two others sit around a table. Nearby is the codes room and telecommunications centre protected by nine-inch-thick steel doors still bearing US federal notices certifying they would withstand “20 man-hours of radiation attack”.

Iranians allege that here some 10,000 telephone lines in Iran and the region were tapped, part of a plot to bring back Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah who had been ousted nine months before and, at the time of the seizure, was in the US.

Giant shredding machines stand as they were when the Iranian students stormed in, to spend months later painstakingly piecing together documents that are now on display in a nearby pavilion.

Other exhibits include remains of the helicopter that crashed in the Iranian desert in an ill-fated mission to rescue the 52 hostages who were held for 444 days, a drama that crippled the US administration of Jimmy Carter. The rooms where the hostages were kept are not open, however. “We do not have authority over that area,” said the guide.

Other rooms are devoted to US military exploits abroad – Korea, Vietnam and a new addition, Afghanistan. There is a family atmosphere, with children eager to shoot from a cannon that fires golf-balls into the mouth of a devilish figure wearing a stars and stripes hat.

But children fall silent when they see the gruesome pictures of the 290 civilians who died when the US Vincennes warship shot down an Iranian Airbus in 1988 over the Persian Gulf. The US said it was a mistake and paid compensation, but also decorated the ships commander.

The exhibition, organised by clerical hardliners, is aimed at teaching Irans younger generation too young to have witnessed the revolution the history of the founding of the Islamic republic. It is a confusing experience for some. In their jeans and sneakers, the youngsters who come here are also attuned to the internet, satellite television, US basketball and western music. “We hate American foreign policy,” said one boy. “But” he added “We like Michael Jordan.”

Organisers were vague about why now, after 22 years, the embassy should throw open its gates, but said they started work five months ago. That was when Mohammad Khatami, the pro-reform president, was re-elected by a landslide over his conservative rivals. Since then the issue of relations with the US, broken for more than two decades, has been at the forefront of the ideological divide between hardliners and reformists.

It appears that the suicide attacks of September 11th on the US also had an impact on the exhibition. One guide said its image had been “moderated for humantarians reasons”. The original title was “Shattering of the Glassy Palace”, and this is still written on some brochures, but because of possible connotations with the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, the exhibition is now officially called “The Great Aban 13th Exhibition”, the date in the Persian calendar for November 4, the day of the storming.

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