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Iran Celebrates the Revolution’s Fortieth Anniversary—Twelve Blocks from the White House

On Friday evening, I attended a party hosted by Mehdi Atefat, the senior Iranian diplomat in Washington, to mark, as the embossed invitation noted, “the glorious occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Victory of the Islamic Revolution.” I’ve gone to Iran’s commemorations over the years for insight on the state of play—or degree of hostility—between Tehran and Washington. During the Shah’s era, Iran’s diplomatic mission was famed for its White House connections and its hedonistic, caviar-infused parties, attended by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, and Barbara Walters, on Embassy Row. It closed after President Carter broke off relations, in 1980, a few months after students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Since then, Iran has relied on three dozen Iranians with green cards to conduct its business in the United States. The teetotalling revolutionaries operated for years out of a second-floor office, above a liquor store, far from the diplomatic quarter. They often complained about not being allowed enough telephone lines to cope with the consular needs of some three hundred thousand Iranian-passport holders living in the United States. As Iran negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with the world’s six major powers, the Obama Administration allowed the Interest Section to move to classier digs—with more telephone lines—in Washington’s West End. It’s now a twenty-minute walk from the White House and on the same street as the State Department.

Atefat, a tall, bearded man with graying hair, studied soil fertility at a university in Oklahoma, forty years ago, and stayed. At the dinner party, he wore a standup collar with no tie, a symbol of Western fashion banned since the 1979 revolution. In remarks, he bemoaned the renewed tensions between the U.S. and Iran, after President Trump abandoned the nuclear deal, last May.

“People had hoped that the peaceful and respectful resolution of the controversy would usher a new era and end the sanctions,” he told several dozen guests, who sipped juice and tea. Instead, he said, “A taller wall of mistrust has been erected. Unfortunately, we are experiencing another totally failed approach to Iran—[a] military option!”

The statements emanating from Tehran on Friday were darker and snarkier. “The U.S. regime is the embodiment of evil, violence, creating chaos, and warmongering,” the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech to military officers. On his English-language Twitter account, Khamenei vowed that “the Iranian nation will not abandon ‘Death to America’.” He then clarified: “ ‘Down with USA’ means down with @realDonaldTrump, @AmbJohnBolton and @SecPompeo. It means death to the American politicians currently in power. It means death to the few people running that country; we have nothing against the American nation.”

That first generation of revolutionaries is still paranoid about U.S. intentions, which is one reason Iran to lock up Americans and dual nationals four decades after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy—and the introduction of modern hostage-taking, when fifty-two diplomats and citizens were held for four hundred and forty-four days. At least four Americans are currently being held captive in Iran, including Siamak Namazi, a businessman; Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student; and Michael White, a Navy veteran from California. Robert A. Levinson, a former F.B.I. agent, has been missing since he disappeared in Iran in 2007.

The Trump Administration acknowledged the revolution’s longevity with its own insults. “Even your president, Hassan Rouhani, admits to the Iranian regime’s 40 years of failure,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted recently, in both English and Farsi. “Your ruling regime has always prioritized ideology over the interests and well-being of the Iranian people.”

On paper, Iran—a petrostate with vast reserves of oil and natural gas—should be a member of the G-20, a group of the world’s richest industrialized nations. Its eighty-one million people are tech-savvy, innovative, and voracious consumers. One of the positive by-products of the revolution has been soaring literacy rates—from thirty-seven per cent in 1976 to eighty-six per cent in 2016, according to unesco. That includes women, who are now the majority of students in Iranian universities.

Instead, the Islamic Republic is struggling. “Today, the country is facing the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past forty years,” President Rouhani warned in a speech, on January 30th, to mark the revolution’s anniversary. Seventy per cent of the Iranian public agree that economic conditions are bad, according to a survey released on Saturday, by IranPoll, a Canada-based public-opinion research firm. Iran’s currency has plummeted by some seventy per cent in the past year. Inflation is estimated at thirty-five per cent. Unemployment is a chronic problem, especially among the educated youth born after the revolution, who now make up the majority of the population—and voting bloc.

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