Thirty years have passed since 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days in a crisis that helped unseat an American president, upended American political calculations in the Middle East, and launched an enduring diplomatic freeze between the two former allies.
But you wouldn't know that to listen to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, the only top Islamic guide since the death of the Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic engineer's key architect. At a ceremony in Tehran to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover, Khamenei lashed out at the United States with rhetoric hearkening back to the glory days of the Islamic Revolution. America was still the "Great Satan," untrustworthy and eager to see Iran's demise, he charged.
In the harshest attack to date on America's new "engagement" strategy," Khamenei dismissed President Obama's overtures as just another ploy. "The new U.S. president has said nice things," Khamenei said. But "whenever they [US officials] smile at the officials of the Islamic revolution, when we carefully look at the situation we notice that they are hiding a dagger behind their back," Khamenei warned. "They have not changed their intentions [toward Iran]."
He also suggested that Iran would reject the American and Russian-backed United Nations proposal aimed at resolving a protracted dispute over Iran's nuclear program. "Negotiations in which the U.S. predetermines the result are like the relationship between a wolf and a lamb," Khamenei said. "We do not want this."
Khamenei's Iran seems frozen in time. Iran's rulers are still blaming the United States for their country's many woes. But today, most Iranians no longer believe them.
In some ways, the scene today mirrored that of 30 years ago, when the revolution's most extreme elements used the embassy seizure and hostage crisis to solidify their control of the state's institutions and unseat the more moderate Bazargan government. Then as now, riot police and security officials have flooded public squares and Islamic banners have been held high in the streets of Tehran.
But today, the banners that count are those of young Iranians proclaiming not "Death to America," but "Death to the Dictator," a reference to the Ayatollah himself and his repressive regime, which is still trying to solidify power by attacking external enemies, real and imagined.
Today, the Islamic regime is more fragile than ever before. There is massive discontent, within and against the regime over the fraudulent election that has kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the regime itself in power. Many of those former students who stormed the American embassy are now self-proclaimed champions of the "Green Movement" which is demanding reform and true democracy. Former presidents of the Islamic Republic, like Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and demanding change that even they can believe in. So is another former militant stalwart, former speaker of the house Mehdi Karoubi, who has emerged as the regime's most outspoken critic. The Iranian government is now loathed by most of its people.
While Obama's advisers are right to warn that military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would most probably help shore up a failing regime -- bestowing on it the gift of Iranian patriotism -- discreet help from the outside could make some difference in the outcome of Iran's political fortunes. Moreover, there is no contradiction between trying to woo Iran away from its nuclear weapons path first through talks, on one hand, and, on the other, speaking out more vigorously in support of the dissidents who are fighting for reform at great personal peril. Yet Iranian reformers feel utterly abandoned by President Obama. And ironically, they, too, now blame Washington for failing to champion human rights, reform and an end to dictatorship.