U.S. Embassy in Iran opens for public tours

Friday, November 2, 2001

TEHRAN, Iran -- The first "spy den" tour moved into the inner sanctum: down the hall, through the vault door, past 22-year-old graffiti denouncing America.

"And here is the chamber where they plotted against Iran," the guide said Thursday, pointing to racks of outdated U.S.-made telecommunications consoles and rows of Teletype machines. "It's a very secret place."

Not anymore.

For the first time since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the public can tour the former U.S. Embassy compound where 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days. The exhibit -- timed to coincide with the Nov. 4, 1979, storming of the compound -- tries to justify the siege and revisits old Iranian gripes against Washington.

"Sinister" hamburgers

Most of the material is familiar: accusations of U.S. political meddling directed from the former embassy, widely known among Iranians as the "spy den." Yet some is stunningly abstract: a showcase of "sinister" foods such as hamburgers and a display that links designs on U.S. currency to Jewish symbols such as the Star of David.

"The last generation knew about American interventions in Iran. The new generation needs to know more about the history of our revolution," said Mohammad Shoaa, director of the 10-day exhibition.

But the present times -- especially after the Sept. 11 attacks -- are more complicated than the lockstep anti-U.S. views of the past. Some have even suggested a cautious thaw in the diplomatic deep freeze.

Seeking dialogue

A committee of Iranian lawmakers proposed this week opening dialogue with Washington on the future in neighboring Afghanistan if the Taliban falls. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quashed the idea.

It was the latest glimpse into the widening gap between conservative clerics and supporters of the more moderate president, Mohammad Khatami.

Many former militants now back Khatami's reforms. None of the main hostage-takers were at the ceremony Thursday inside the embassy grounds, which until recently was used as a school for the Revolutionary Guards controlled by the hard-line clergy.

The embassy building -- a two-story brick fortress -- was freshly scrubbed for the public. The interior walls were painted lime green. The window bars received a fresh coat of tan.

Political analyst Saeed Laylaz viewed the exhibit as another example of the conservatives projecting their power, saying: "The doors of any talks with the United States have been closed."

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