For three decades, students have massed every Nov. 4 at the sprawling former U.S. embassy — now a Revolutionary Guards training center and museum — that occupies several blocks in downtown Tehran to commemorate the young revolution's confrontation with the world's mightiest power. On that day in 1979, revolutionary students stormed the compound and seized 52 U.S. diplomats, holding them hostage for 444 days. The regime has long supported the event, officially dubbing it Pupils' Day and giving students the day off from school to attend.
Last year students paraded down the streets shouting anti-American slogans and burning an effigy of President George W. Bush. Now, for many Iranian students, the real issue is no longer the U.S. This year opposition leaders are calling on Iranians young and old to parade in front of the graffiti-covered embassy walls against their controversial President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.
The world's only modern theocracy is clearly nervous. The regime announced last week that it would mobilize 3 million of its supporters to prevent the normally raucous festival from turning into a sustained anti-regime protest. The paramilitary Basij vigilantes will be deployed to keep the commemoration on message and to silence protesters. And, escalating the stakes, Ayatullah Khamenei warned last week that questioning the election results will now be treated as a crime.
An Iranian opposition website has published what it claims is a top-secret letter from the Islamic Guidance Ministry to the press urging censorship. "Given the possibility that groups opposed to the regime may engage in actions on the eve of Nov. 4, the anniversary of the seizure of America's den of spies, and may deviate public opinion from the ceremonies on the national day of struggle against world arrogance," the letter reads, "I request that you refrain from disseminating any news, photo or topic which can lead to tension in the society or breach public order."
The opposition has so far refused to back down. In a statement on Oct. 31 on his website, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi called the Nov. 4 anniversary the greenest day of the year — in reference to the color adopted by his movement. The commemoration, he said, should be a "rendezvous so we would remember anew that among us it is the people who are the leaders."
In the wake of the ruthless crackdown that ended last summer's mass protests, the opposition has begun converting national holidays — when the public is expected to turn out on the streets — into opportunities for political protests. But the Nov. 4 commemoration is particularly sensitive because it symbolizes the power of the regime's biggest long-term problem — Iran's youth.
Young people were in the vanguard of the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and in the embassy siege, they were way out in front of Ayatullah Khomeini and the revolutionary leadership. Students from three Tehran campuses plotted to seize the American diplomatic mission after the Carter Administration admitted the ailing, exiled Shah for medical treatment, suspecting that Washington wanted to restore Pahlavi to power, as it had in the coup of 1953. The student action only won the support of the new Islamic regime days after the fact.
The only other major challenge to the regime in 30 years was the 1999 campus protest that led to bloody clashes. Some 70% of Iran's population is now under age 30 due to a post-revolution baby boom spurred in part by clerics calling on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation. But the first generation of children born under the revolution has come back to haunt the regime. Their political apathy in 2005 may have helped put Ahmadinejad in office, but their current activism in myriad forms has fueled a vibrant civil disobedience campaign that the authorities have failed to suppress.
In an unprecedented public rebuke, mathematics student Mahmoud Vahidnia last week criticized Iran's Supreme Leader to his face for living in a bubble, limiting freedom of speech and press and allowing élites to get a stranglehold on power through institutions like the Council of Guardians. State-controlled television terminated the broadcast of the meeting between Khamenei and Iran's academic élite, but thousands have since seen parts of Vahidnia's bold criticism on YouTube. Sporadic applause can be heard in the background.
The Nov. 4 anniversary previously had a unique role in Iran's foreign policy, often serving as a barometer of public opinion. During the past eight years, the rallies were intensely anti-American because of fears that Bush would launch a military attack. But in 1998, under reformist President Mohammed Khatami, one of the three masterminds of the embassy takeover offered an olive branch: Our dealings with the hostages were not directed against the American people and not even against the hostages themselves, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh told that year's commemoration. Although Iranians still felt wronged by U.S. policy, he said the time had come to invite all the hostages to return to Iran as guests. Regarding relations with America, Iranians must look to the future and not to the past. He received thunderous applause.
Many involved in the embassy siege later became leaders of the reform movement. Asgharzadeh went on to become a member of Tehran's city council. Mohsen Mirdamadi, another of the three masterminds, became a member of parliament and leader of Iran's largest reform party. As chairman of Iran's foreign affairs committee, he called for improving relations with the U.S. And as Iran prepares to commemorate the event that he helped plan, Mirdamadi today is among the more than 100 political prisoners who are awaiting the outcome of a mass show trial on charges of trying to subvert the revolution.