Today in Tehran, crowds of menacing men hurled stones at the British embassy, set nearby cars on fire and chanted "Death to England" while burning the British flag.
If I juxtapose the word "British" or "England" with the word "U.S.," you would think this were 1979. But it isn't, and although to the naked eye it may look the same, a second look would reveal that it doesn't.
The Iranian revolution in 1979, which ushered-in the Theocratic regime of present day Iran, was a popular movement that had the unified support of various factions, all of whom had one basic goal: the ouster of the secular Shah. The way each envisioned the aftermath of the revolution to be, was probably as divergent as ideas on how best to deal with Iran are today.
Their obstinate bond was the idea that the Shah had prevented a real democracy from taking hold in Iran and that he was a puppet of the U.S., which had secured the ouster of Mossadegh, and propped the Shah back into power. However correct or incorrect that notion may be, it was widely believed in Iran among many classes, and the quest for a political voice mobilized the masses to take the opportunity presented by a collective revolt, to usher in change. America was memorably coined "the great satan," and successfully crafted as the adversary, because it had a perceived history of meddling in local politics.
Today, things are different. There is no zealous support for an anti-western sentiment. People have returned home in disappointment in the aftermath of their revolution a generation ago, and if there's any group they'd like to see taken hostage, it's the ruling class. The youth are looking for jobs. Their fathers are working hard to keep their jobs and put food on the table. There are no available men to fill the streets en-masse chanting for a movement that engages their hopes and dreams for a new order. The only men who can afford to take the day off for demonstrations are either the ones that are paid to do so by government factions eager to sow discord, or the ones that don't have jobs and have no allegiance to this government. The youth who took to the streets to chant Green slogans in 2009 are either languishing in jails or are out looking for jobs. They certainly aren't on the side of the regime, and wouldn't be taking British hostages at the behest of a government that downgraded relations with the UK just days earlier. These are two different camps.
In 1991, in the early days of my post-graduate foray into post-revolution Iran, I stumbled upon a plain-looking building in one of my walks in downtown Tehran. Young and unaware at the time, I meandered my way into the building and eventually realized I was in the old U.S. embassy. Just beyond the entrance was a book shop. I spent hours in there that day, pouring over volumes of books that had been published using the pieced together strips of shredded documents which young revolutionaries had found in embassy trash cans following the take-over in 1979. I bought a few of them and took them home to read.
There wasn't much earth-shattering information in there as there was evidence of real commitment to a cause. There was a passion and enthusiasm evident on those pages, where revolutionaries had painstakingly collected tons of shredded paper, and with what I presume was less than perfect English, had meticulously pieced together each strip perfectly, aligned it by hand and eventually produced volumes of books to chronicle the life of the U.S. embassy in Tehran before the revolution. The books were a testament of the revolutionary fervor, and the extent of the ardor, indeed the fanaticism, that had fueled that revolution. People believed.
Today, people don't believe. They just want this chapter of Iran's history to be over. Ordinary people want to rejoin the community of nations, and regain their respect among the people of the world. They want to be able to travel, to attain an education abroad, to have a chance at a better future -- for themselves and their children.
They are not on the streets chanting to create the next great satan. They are not eager to jettison yet another Western power. They are not imbued with a sense of religious or ideological zeal to make them risk everything for a principled belief. In fact, they don't have much to risk. They are hungry and tired and are looking for hope, not another confrontation.
This embassy ransack wasn't the work of ordinary Iranian youth. This was a message crafted behind the scenes and delivered by players with a script. Riot police were deployed and stood in the way of the attacking mob. But armed with pelt guns and tear gas, they still couldn't hold back the protesters, even though the crowd was small -- much smaller than the throngs of people who protested during the Green movement. Yet Riot police couldn't hold them back? This was no display of simultaneous inspiration. This was a government that feels increasingly cornered, attempting to show the world it still has popular support.