Inside Tehran’s monument to US ‘arrogance’

One sculpture depicts students entangled in American flags as they clamber over the embassy gates

The US embassy in Iran has been reopened as a museum chronicling the bitter history of bilateral relations.

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.”

This typewriter was among the relics left after the 1979 hostage crisis

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”.

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