TEHRAN, Iran – For almost 40 years, a two-story brick building in the middle of Tehran has been the symbol of Iran’s revulsion toward the United States, an enemy it holds responsible for engineering a coup, throwing its military might behind its regional foes and limiting its prized oil industry.
The former U.S. Embassy, where 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days beginning in 1979 amid the birth of the Islamic Republic, is now a museum to American treachery the Iranian authorities refer to as the “U.S. Den of Espionage.” Murals depicting the Statue of Liberty as Death and the U.S. flag in the form of a handgun line its exterior walls and interior hallways.
“This represents Iran’s side of the story,” a guide to the former embassy told USA TODAY as he showed off typewriters, secret meeting rooms, incriminating documents and even embassy stationery collecting dust inside the compound.
Foreigners are rarely allowed to roam the historic building,a stark physical reminder for Iran that the U.S. is its worst enemy and doesn’t take enough responsibility for meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs. “America doesn’t do that,” the guide said.
In early August, when President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated over several years with world powers, another tense chapter was added to the story of two countries whose strained relationship is steeped in decades of mistrust and hostility.
Trump’s moves risk further inflaming an already volatile Middle East and alienating American allies, and they run counter to majority opinion at home and abroad. They mean certain economic hardship for millions of ordinary Iranians.
But Trump has stood firm, saying the “horrible, one-sided” Iran nuclear deal “failed to achieve the fundamental objective of blocking all paths to an Iranian nuclear bomb, and it threw a lifeline of cash to a murderous dictatorship that has continued to spread bloodshed, violence and chaos.”
“To this day, Iran threatens the United States and our allies, undermines the international financial system and supports terrorism and militant proxies around the world,” he said this month in announcing the latest sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, responding in a speech on national television, said Trump was playing politics at the expense of the Iranian people.
“The U.S. reimposes sanctions on Iran and pulls out of the nuclear deal and then wants to hold talks with us,” he said. “Trump’s call for direct talks is only for domestic consumption in America ahead of elections … and to create chaos in Iran.”
For Iran, the latest sanctions mean continued hard economic times. They will keep Tehran from acquiring U.S. dollars, restrict its ability to trade in gold and other precious metals, prohibit the foreign purchase of Iranian sovereign debt and punish the car industry with high tariffs. The United States is banning imports of Iran’s iconic Persian rugs. The biggest blow will come in early November, when sanctions on Iran’s lucrative oil industry swing back into full gear.
For Washington, it’s a geopolitical gamble that swims against the tide of world opinion and much of the United States’ own foreign policy establishment.
“If the Trump administration carries through with its threats to completely prevent Iran from exporting its oil by, for example, deploying the U.S. Navy in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to block Iran’s oil ships, then this moves beyond a conflict of words and posturing to a war situation. We’ll be at war. A real war,” said Nader Entessar, an Iranian-born political scientist at the University of South Alabama.
Iran will suffer
Inside Iran, there is a mixture of anger and weariness at Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions. Though Washington insists the sanctions are not aimed at Iran’s civilians, only its government and nuclear program, Iranians find that line of reasoning hard to accept; even though the sanctions don’t target them directly, restrictions on Iran’s use of the global financial system have led to severe shortages of cancer drugs, certain food supplies and key consumer goods. They also have led to an economic crisis that has severely affected salaries, prices and jobs.
“Please tell Mr. Trump that it will only get worse for ordinary Iranian workers and their families,” said Fereshteh Dastpak, head of Iran’s National Carpet Center. Dastpak lamented the likely effect of the sanctionson the 1.5 million people who earn their living in Iran’s rug industry. Nearly $100 million worth of Persian carpets were exported to the USA last year amid the lifting of sanctions tied to the nuclear accord negotiated during President Barack Obama’s tenure. The year before the deal? There were no carpets imported. “Trump needs to reconsider,” Dastpak said.
Several Iranians, including Ali, 26, from the city of Isfahan, told USA TODAY they would leave if they could. “There is no future for me here,” he said. Because Ali was highly critical of Iran’s government, his last name has been withheld.
Gholam Hossein Shafei, president of Iran’s chamber of commerce, said in an interview that “America is pulling out of an official and valid agreement negotiated by international institutions.”
Shafei said foreign investment, economic growth and tourism in Iran would suffer before they even had the chance to get off the ground. “There needs to be an answer to this,” he said.
So far, there hasn’t been one.
‘Biggest threat to the U.S. is its own president’
Trump is dropping out of the accord over the objections of other signatories to the deal, including China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union. All have publicly expressed their disapproval and pledged to work with Iran but have failed to come up with specific proposals that would allow them to circumvent so-called secondary sanctions: those imposed on any countries or companies who do business with Iran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran was complying with the accord. Polls show a majority of Americans want the United States to stay in the deal.
Trump has long objected to an agreement hailed as the most significant foreign policy accomplishment of Obama’s administration. He says the accord does not go far enough in addressing Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions, its conventional missile program and its financing of proxies in regional hot spots such as Syria and Yemen.
“I know (Iran is) having a lot of problems and their economy is collapsing,” Trump has said. “But I will tell you this: At a certain point, they’re going to call me, and they’re going to say, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and we’ll make a deal. They’re feeling a lot of pain right now.”
“Today, the biggest threat to the U.S. is its own president,” said Hesamodin Ashna, a senior adviser to Iran’s president. “Someone who sells lies and intimidation for a living is not only a danger to the American people but a danger to the international community.”
Experts in international relations are skeptical of Trump’s strategy.
“Iran is an issue that has unified Congress, and to a certain extent the American public, in terms of being hard-line on it. But being anti-Iran is an easy position to take,” said Dina Esfandiary, an Iranian national and policy expert at King’s College London. “Trump’s policies, or lack of policies on Iran, rather, stem from ‘anything that Obama did needs to be undone.’ That’s definitely a driving principle for Trump here.”
Ali Ansari, founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland and a distant relative of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a dictator the CIA installed as Iran’s leader in 1953 before his ouster in 1979, said, “By pulling out of the deal, Trump has given the Iranian authorities an excuse and allowed them to claim all of its problems can be sourced to America.”
Anti-American animosity still visible
Pahlavi was ushered into power after Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, nationalized Iran’s oil industry and showed little interest in dealing with the West. He maintained a pro-West foreign policy and fostered modern economic development, and his government officials boasted that he had turned Iran into a place where women were wearing miniskirts shorter than in Paris. That came at the price of autocratic rule and corruption. Pahlavi employed secret police to torture and execute people and stifle dissent.
When anti-American cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to become Iran’s supreme leader in 1979 and unleashed the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the country was determined to break with American interference in its affairs.
Ansari, the policy expert at St. Andrews University, said Iran’s government has done little in the intervening years to help its own situation.
“After the nuclear deal, it signed a lot of MoUs (memoranda of understanding, an intent to do business), but nothing really materialized as different factions of the government argued about what they should give away and what they shouldn’t,” Ansari said. “If the Trump administration had stuck with this deal, it probably wouldn’t have been deliverable, but Iran’s hard-liners wouldn’t now have any cover. Trump has made it easier for them.”
In December, there were weeks-long demonstrations in more than 80 cities across Iran. The protests followed a leaked government budget report that revealed Iran funneled billions of dollars to religious institutions, to the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitary unit and for military interventions extending from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. The protests came during a time of spiraling costs for goods at home and severe water shortages.
Trump’s decision to exit the nuclear deal risks reinvigorating the “Great Satan” epithet, a slogan that has come to define Iranian-U.S. relations over the past several decades. The phrase, along with the “Death to America” chants that came to prominence under Khomeini, remain a staple at Friday prayers and political rallies under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This animosity is visible still in the state-sponsored anti-American signs and graffiti that dot Iran’s smog-filled capital, with its clogged roads, bustling marketplaces, bridges, tunnels, towers and largely concrete skyline set against the backdrop of the Alborz mountain range.
“You can’t trust the United States – never,” said an official with Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Whenever the United States makes promises, it eventually abandons them.”
Fatigue over failed diplomacy
At the “U.S. Den of Espionage,” the former American Embassy, the guide ended the tour by screening a brief video that purported to show myriad perceived U.S. crimes against Iran, from invading its immediate neighbors and building military bases there to shooting down a civilian passenger plane traveling from Tehran to Dubai in 1988, killing all 290 people on board, including 66 children. (The U.S. Navy said it mistook the plane for a fighter jet. Iran rejects that explanation.)
Still, despite rhetoric from the Trump administration and some exiled Iranians – as well as praise for Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the overwhelming sentiment on Iran’s streets is not revolutionary fervor but fatigue over decades of failed Iranian-U.S. diplomacy and the resulting economic struggles for ordinary Iranians.
“We waited for so long for good news between our two nations,” a woman, 37, in a coffee shop told USA TODAY as she despaired over the renewed sanctions and breakdown in relations. Fearing for her safety, the woman did not want her name associated with a political statement in a foreign newspaper. “A lot of people in Iran are not satisfied with their lives,” she said. “What do we hope for now?”
Years of international sanctions have taken a toll on Iran. About one-third of Iranian young people (ages 15 to 29) are unemployed, according to the International Iranian Economic Association. More broadly, the jobless rate is more than 13 percent, hyperinflation has evaporated the purchasing power of salaries, and Iran’s rial currency has lost half of its value against the U.S. dollar over the past four months. After the nuclear deal, Iran was able to restore oil production and exports, but it did so during a time of record-low oil prices. In November, Iran will have to weather large cuts to its oil exports once again.
Although demonstrators in Iran may be occasionally emboldened to call for the death of Rouhani and Khamenei, they do not necessarily view support from Trump administration regime-change hawks such as national security adviser John Bolton as the answer.
“Just look at our neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan. After 6 p.m., you can’t go out. It’s too dangerous. This is what happens when Americans intervene in other countries,” said Mohammad, a merchant at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, referring to two countries where the United States has spent billions of dollars on military occupations and long-term nation-building missions. “The reality is that we don’t want the U.S. interfering with our problems.”
Still, USA TODAY encountered many Iranians who expressed disapproval of what they viewed as Trump’s brash leadership style and aggressive policies toward Iran but admired what the president was achieving for his own country.
One was Hossein, 57, an English professor who, like Mohammad, the merchant, did not want his family name published. Hossein is trying to leave Iran for a job in Europe, and he worries his views could affect his application.
“Whatever promises Trump gives his people, he fulfills,” he said, mentioning actions Trump has taken since entering office such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. “He’s a pragmatist. Trump only does things he thinks are good for his country. He started an economic war with China. He will succeed. He had a nuclear summit with North Korea. He will succeed. He’s started messing with Iran. He will succeed.”
- INSIDE THE IRAN ENGIMA: “A USA TODAY journalist crisscrosses a country whose relationship with the U.S. is steeped in decades of mistrust.” Read story here.