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Iranian Revolution Still Resonates 28 Years After Shah's Fall


On February 11th, 1979, the Iranian Revolution began. Later that year, young Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy and took its employees hostage. The United States and Iran have been bitter adversaries ever since. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas looks at the Iranian Revolution and its legacy at home and abroad.

Like peering at the same object through different lenses, Iran and the West -- particularly the United States -- have profoundly different views of the Iranian Revolution.

For Iranians, it is seen as the toppling of an autocratic monarch, the Shah of Iran, who had ruled the country with the military and financial support of the United States -- and his replacement by an theocratic government led by the Ayatollah Khomenei.

For the United States, however, the revolution is inextricably linked to the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. Young revolutionaries stormed the compound in November of 1979 and held embassy personnel captive for 444 days.

Gary Sick was on the National Security Council during the revolution and hostage crisis. He says that for the U.S., it was an initial and deeply shocking introduction to the world of Islamic fundamentalism and the nature of Islamist governments.

"It was the first major crisis that we had on television for a daily treatment of the crisis,” said Sick. “And coming into American living rooms day after day after day with fanatic students outside the American embassy shouting, 'Death to America' and waving their fists created an image of Iran -- fanatics, impossible to deal with, completely uninterested in international law. All of those things that I think now constitute a lot of Americans' working image of Iran."

Many Iranians see the revolution as more of a way of life than a single historical event. The country has gone through some profound changes over the years. In a way, the revolution has come full circle, from Tehran and Washington ignoring each other, back to confrontation.

A little more than a year after the Iranian Revolution, Iraq attacked Iran in a war that lasted eight years. The United States backed Saddam Hussein in that conflict. Gary Sick says the war changed the direction of the revolution.

"The revolution has taken some really interesting twists and turns. It was very dogmatic and zealous and fevered at the beginning of 1980s. Then when Saddam attacked and the war dragged on for eight years, Iran became much more nationalistic and much less interested in supporting the revolution. It became much more concerned about preserving its own national interests and looked like a regular country fighting a war."

Paul Pillar is a former CIA senior analyst on the Middle East. He took part in a recent panel discussion on Iran. He said the long, bloody war fuels Iran's interest in post-Saddam Iraq to this day.

"It's not surprising that Iran would have a very strong interest in Iraq,” said Pillar. “After all, this is the country that under Saddam Hussein started a war back in 1980 that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iranian deaths."

The West, led by the United States, insists that Iran now has ambitions to be a nuclear power as well. Iran denies the allegation.

Reva Bhalla is an Iran affairs analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor. She says the legacy of the Iran-Iraq war is now driving Iranian ambitions, particularly in Iraq.

"Iraq used to be this Sunni hostile state against Iran, and the memories of the Iran-Iraq war are very vivid in Tehran still today,” Bhalla said. “So to be able to secure its western flank and consolidate Shiite control in the country is huge for Iran. And to have the nuclear deterrent as well is really going to raise Iran to the status that it has been trying to (achieve) since the Islamic Republic (of Iran) came to be."

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not contributed to any soothing of tensions between Iran and the West. The former Revolutionary Guard and Iran-Iraq war veteran refuses to bend to America's will.

There have been rumblings of a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, but Bush administration officials deny any such action is contemplated. Still, it makes no secret of its desire to see political change in Iran.

Ken Katzman is a Middle East analyst at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. He says the possibilities of regime change appear to be slim.

"Iranian exile movements are largely discredited and not necessarily synchronous with U.S. values, and the internal opposition in Iran is cowed by the regime and difficult for the U.S. to make contact with. It is also not clear that internal dissenters such as labor unions, women, intellectuals, and students, want to replace the regime. Many simply want to reform the regime."

Many of the revolutionary billboards are gone now… replaced by advertising. The old U.S. Embassy, though still labeled a "nest of spies,” is now a training school. But the ghosts of the Iranian Revolution still haunt Iran's relations with the West to this day.