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US 'Spy Den' in Tehran a reminder of troubled relationship

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CIA Telex machine as exhibit in former US embassy in Tehran Jan van der Made

Hidden behind a sheer endless brick wall, crowned with iron spikes at the South Moffateh and Taleqani streets in Tehran lies a building that looks like an American high school from the 1940s. But its not a high school.


A foreign reporter only gets access only after waiting for hours for a permission to visit a permanent exhibition that’s been inside for decades and does not seem to attract any attention except for two other foreigners - two Japanese tourists armed with enormous cameras.

CIA 'Den'

The episode of the Iranian hostage taking of US embassy personnel started in 1979 when an outraged mob of revolutionary students breached the walls and invaded the embassy, taking its 52 personnel hostage for a period of 444 days.

Once inside, a corridor leads to a monumental staircase flanked by murals depicting skulls, soldiers with American helmets carrying guns, wolves eating bodies without limbs. Upstairs, a friendly youngster who calls himself “Ali” offers fresh water from a machine, and the tour starts.

Interlinked rooms, once used by “the CIA” have been turned into a primitive museum. On display are telex machines, and, surprisingly sophisticated technology for the time, retina eye scanners to open a massive, quadruple-layered vault-like door that leads to an ultra-secret room full of coding machines

Former US embassy in Tehran, nicknamed "the Spy House" Jan van der Made

There are rows of computers - top of the line in 1979 - an armored document filing cabinet that couldn't withstand the power drills of the students, and a “glassy room” designed to suppress all sound and facilitate “secret negotiations”.

Another room dsiplays shredders that panicky personnel fed with documents. The shreds were to be grinded to dust.

“But there was only one grinder, and it broke down,” explains Ali.

Revolutionary students found the piles of shredded paper which they used to put together hundreds of pages of classified material.

Students compiled and published the documents in a series of books titled “Documents from the US Espionage Den” that went on sale, but now seems to have disappeared from the bookshops.

The crisis ended on January 1, 1981, the day of US president Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.

Today, almost 40 years later, most inhabitants of Iran's capital take the deteriorating and empty embassy grounds for granted as a neglectable eyesore in Tehran’s streetview.

Powerful symbolism

But its symbolism remains powerful.

Every year, on November 4 the hostage taking is commemorated in what some call the “Death to America Day.”

Anti US slogan on wall former US embassy in Tehran Jan van der Made

Just two years ago, President Hassan Rouhani said that “the US embassy takeover formed the pillar of the country's independence and [symbolizes] the fight against the arrogant power [read: the USA] by the Islamic Revolution in Iran.”

Today, Rouhani’s opponents don’t shy away from using Iran’s difficult past with the US in the political game.

Now, ironically, Rouhani is being accused of cozying up to Washington.

By signing the nuclear deal, and inviting western companies to come back to Iran to do business, something that was anathema for decades, he is seen as going against the grain.

The deals, his critics say, contradict Ayatollah Khomeini’s struggle to shake of the yoke of foreign imperialism, symbolized by the “Spy Den” on Taleqani Street.