Thousands of Iranians rallied Sunday in commemoration of the 39th anniversary of the takeover and hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, just hours before the re-imposition of all American sanctions lifted by the nuclear deal.
The 444-day crisis after the fall of the U.S.-allied shah transfixed America, as nightly images of blindfolded hostages played on television sets across the nation. Ultimately, it would be President Jimmy Carter leaving office that saw all 52 captive American diplomats freed.
On Sunday, hard-liners vented their rage at a new American president, Donald Trump, who pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal struck by his predecessor that the United Nations said Tehran still honours. With crippling sanctions on Iran’s vital oil industry set to take effect Monday, Iran’s already-anemic economy likely will suffer more, though politicians and protesters struck a defiant tone.
“Today the Iranian nation will show that Mr. Trump is too small to be able to bring Iran to its knees,” said Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker.
The annual commemoration marks when student demonstrators climbed over the fence at the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, angered about Mr. Carter allowing the fatally ill Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to receive cancer treatment in the United States. The students soon took over the entire, leafy compound. A few 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.
While the commemoration annually sees American flags burned and cries of “Death to America” rise up, it also has a carnival-like atmosphere for the students and others taking part. Some waved massive inflatable ballistic missiles. Others held signs lampooning Mr. Trump, including images of him contorted into a Nazi swastika or as a missile chasing after a dove. Some even showed a smiling silhouette logo of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s founder Colonel Harland David Sanders crossed-out, equating the chain once in Iran before the Islamic Revolution to decadent Americanism.
General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, gave a speech vowing that Iran “can overcome this economic war and failure of the sanctions project is imminent.”
“Mr. Trump! Never threaten Iran because moans of the frightened U.S. forces in Tabas can still be heard,” Gen. Jafari said, referring to the failed American mission to rescue the hostages known as Operation Eagle Claw.
He added: “Still the moans of your terrified sailors and your British friends in Persian Gulf can be heard,” referring to times the Guard have held sailors captive there.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced the restoration of sanctions on Iran’s shipping, financial and energy sectors, the second batch of penalties to be restored.
Iran is already in the grip of an economic crisis. Its rial currency now trades at 145,000 to one U.S. dollar, down from when it traded 40,500 to $1 a year ago. The economic chaos sparked mass anti-government protests at the end of last year which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people being killed. Sporadic demonstrations still continue.
The United States said the sanctions are not aimed at toppling the government, but at persuading it to radically change its policies, including its support for regional militant groups and its development of long-range ballistic missiles. However, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, the President’s national security adviser, both have made public statements supporting overthrowing Iran’s theocratic government.
The symbolism of the looming sanctions coming wasn’t lost on protesters Sunday.
“Sanctions have always existed and we are used to them,” said one woman protester who only gave her name as Torabi. “The tougher they take it out on us, the more resistant we become.”
Mr. Trump himself has embraced the sanctions as he faces a tough mid-term election in the U.S. that could change the balance of power in Congress. He tweeted out an image of him with the caption: “Sanctions Are Coming,” a play on the HBO television series Game of Thrones. Hard-liners in Iran responded with a similar image of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force reading: “I Will Stand Against You.”
Another demonstrator Sunday, Jamshid Zarei, waved a banner in English quoting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying: “America can’t do a damn thing.”
“The Iranian people are feeling the economic pressure at their dinner tables and we complain about this, but it will not make Iranian people give up Islam, their values and the [Islamic] Revolution because of rising prices,” he said. “Anyone who thinks that way is really a fool.”