The Foreign Service Journal, November 2019

O n Nov. 4, 1979, a chilly, wet Sunday in Tehran, a group of Iranian engineering students calling themselves “Moslem Student Followers of the Imam’s Path” stormed and occupied the American embassy compound on Taleghani (formerly Takht-e-Jamshid) Avenue. Planned as a 48-hour protest against U.S. policy, their action turned into an international melodrama that has for 40 years poisoned American-Iranian relations in ways few could have foreseen at the time. Since that fateful day, the United States and Iran have been stuck in an endless downward spiral of futility. The two countries glare at each other across an abyss and trade accusations, insults and threats. A war of words sometimes escalates into violence, although the two sides have so far mostly avoided direct conflict. Attempts by either side to break the spiral have crashed on the rocks of third countries’ interests, toxic domestic politics, deep mistrust and bad timing. One constant of these dysfunctional relations is that whenever there is promise of change, bad luck or a dumb decision sets everyone back WIKIMEDIACOMMONS Iranian students storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. A Lingering Poison Tehran, 40Years Later What Have We Learned? THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2019 83 Events of four decades ago continue to cast their malevolent shadows over a relationship that should have long since become more productive. BY JOHN L I MBERT FEATURE into familiar patterns of unthinking hostility and chest-beating. For example, whatever its limitations, the 2015 agreement on restricting Iran’s nuclear program (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) represented a different way of doing things. It demon- strated that long-neglected tools of diplomacy—consultation, patience and listening—could accomplishmore for both sides than decades of repeating empty slogans and insults.