It would be foolish for an American to come by and gawk at the “den of espionage,” the Iranian government’s name for the former U.S. embassy in the Islamic republic’s capital. Even without the newly reinforced restrictions and spasms of street violence, this would be a strange place for anyone with U.S. citizenship to visit. For this is ground zero in the tragic history of U.S.-Iran relations: the staging ground of the 1953 CIA plot that overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran, the locus for the prolonged showdown in 1979 when 53 American diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days, and now the theocratic regime’s bully pulpit for spewing its anti-Western propaganda.
The 15-ft. walls of the compound, which sprawls over a city block, are filled with murals and slogans depicting the evil of America and its allies, particularly Israel. One illustration replaces the Statue of Liberty’s face with a satanic skull. Another down the block shows a black hand wearing the flags of the U.S. and Israel as wristbands and clutching a globe in its talons; the inscription, from the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, reads, “The United States is regarded as the most hated government in the world.” The former Supreme Leader declares in other panels that the U.S. is “too weak to do anything” and refers to the U.S. government as a “dictatorship.” In case the message has not gotten through, visitors who exit the nearby subway station are immediately faced with a hard-to-miss sign: “Death to USA.”
While tourists do come by the walls to stare inside, the place is not open for sightseeing. The compound has a more important function for the Iranian government. The regime’s shock troops, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, referred to as Sepah in Farsi, use the main building which resembles a high school gym in shape and size to train its members. For the past month, they have participated in the government’s brutal response to mass demonstrations by beating protesters in the streets with truncheons and overseeing the notorious Basij militia, a paramilitary group that has been accused of killing dozens of civilians.
No one outside of the organization knows the exact nature or extent of the activities inside and few dare to ask. Soldiers with AK-47s patrol the brick wall from guard posts poised above the metal fences or elevated walkways, and closed-circuit cameras monitor the entire perimeter. A quick peep through a hole in one of the many locked gates elicited a sharp, “Go away. Go away,” from a voice overhead.
But while the old embassy, which is impeccably maintained by the Revolutionary Guards, may reflect the official anti-American stance of the government, that policy is increasingly in conflict with popular attitudes. “We want the world to know that the Iranian government is not the same as the Iranian people,” an engineering graduate student says at a park in the north of the city. “We Iranians have no problems with America.”
At the very least, one look at the shops lining Tehran’s famed shopping boulevard, Vali Asr Street, are evidence of a hunger for Western consumer goods. Among the stores are Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren, proof of an appetite for American cultural imports. Apple computer products, though banned for export to Iran under U.S. sanctions, can be found in the backrooms of some computer boutiques here. A merchant at the city’s historic Grand Bazaar travels to New York several times a year to sell antique Persian rugs, often to auction houses like Sotheby’s. He says he wishes relations would improve so that he does not have to illegally route money through Europe to maintain his business.
Granted, some Iranians have little taste for American culture, but they see immigration to the U.S. and Europe as a way to escape the increasingly repressive regime. The brain drain has been a pressing problem for years, but the presidential election and its fallout has quickened its pace. An Iranian student who is supposed to enter a university in New England this fall says that worsening relations may have dashed his chance to secure an American visa . “We cannot stay in this country,” he says. “But the Americans do not want us in theirs. All my friends want to leave, but what can we do”
Even within sight of the former U.S. embassy turned Revolutionary Guards bastion, one can hear such sentiments. One woman, her hijab pulled back revealing much of her dyed hair, honks her horn at a group of foreigners outside the embassy. With a smile, she gives the peace sign before zipping off into the distance.
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See pictures of Ahmadinejad’s supporters on LIFE.com.