TEHRAN – Thousands of Iranians gathered on Tehran streets Thursday for the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy, chanting “Death to America" and "Death to Israel," and burning American and Israeli flags. The embassy takeover triggered a 444-day hostage crisis and break in diplomatic relations that continues to this day.
The government-organized commemoration, long a venue for voicing anti-Western sentiment, typically draws angry crowds each year. Last year, authorities canceled the event due to the still-raging coronavirus pandemic but on Thursday, state TV said that 800 cities across Iran staged demonstrations.
Protesters hoisted an effigy of President Joe Biden wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Star of David, drops of red paint dripping from its mouth. It wasn't clear whether the demonstrators were trying to make a point or were simply recycling old props from their 2019 parade, but the figure's mop of orange hair resembled that of the effigy of former President Donald Trump used at the rally two years ago.
In a lengthy speech to the crowds, Gen. Hossein Salami, chief of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, denounced the United States as a “dictator-making factory” and took aim at what he called American aggression in the region, declaring that “children of this nation (Iran) will stand bravely against any power that wants to damage their interests."
Long-simmering tensions between the U.S. and Iran have flared again in recent months after Iran's election of ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi, which brought hard-liners to power across every branch of government and stalled Tehran's negotiations with world powers to revive its now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran has ramped up nuclear escalations at the same time, enriching small quantities of uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels and interfering with international inspections of its nuclear sites.
After months of delays, the European Union, Iran and the U.S. announced Wednesday that indirect talks to resuscitate the deal would resume on Nov. 29 in Vienna. In comments broadcast Thursday on state TV, Raisi reiterated that Iran wants “result-oriented” nuclear talks and would “stand against excessive demands which could damage our nation’s interests.”
In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the landmark accord and imposed crushing sanctions, an escalation that set off a shadow war between Iran and the West that has targeted commercial shipping and roiled crucial Mideast waterways. The seas have witnessed a series of hijackings and explosions, including a fatal drone attack earlier this year that the U.S. blamed on Iran.
On Wednesday, the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the embassy seizure, American officials revealed that Iran had seized a Vietnamese-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman last month and still holds the vessel in its port.
Iran, meanwhile, offered conflicting accounts of what happened, claiming that Guard commandos had thwarted a U.S. seizure of a tanker carrying Iranian oil in the Gulf of Oman and freed the vessel. It aired dramatic footage on state television but did not further explain the incident.
In his speech to the throngs outside the building that once housed the U.S. Embassy, Salami lauded the Guard for its assault, accusing the Americans of trying “to take our oil,” and supporting “pirates.”
“We are serious in defending our homeland," he declared.
Gathered Iranians waved flags and raised portraits of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander killed in early January 2020 in an American drone strike in Baghdad ordered by Trump.
A large American flag was spread on the street, forcing those marching to walk over it.
The commemoration marks the dramatic day when hard-line Iranian student demonstrators overran guards and pushed into the embassy compound on Nov. 4, 1979, enraged that President Jimmy Carter had allowed Iran's exiled and fatally ill Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to receive cancer treatment in the United States.
A few embassy staffers fled and hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran before escaping the country with the help of the CIA, a story recounted in the 2012 film “Argo.”
The fall of the U.S.-allied shah transfixed America, as nightly images of blindfolded hostages played on television sets across the nation. Ultimately, as Carter left office, all 52 captive American diplomats freed.