US Embassy in Tehran still revealing its secrets
Ahu Özyurt TEHRAN / CNN Türk
CNN Türk reporter Ahu Özyurt (L) and cameraman Emre Kınacı stand in front of the US embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran.Out of the blue, it hit me. I could have seen the place where the Islamic Revolution had really started. It was a hot Sunday in Tehran and my cameraman, Emre Kınacı, and I were in town for the inauguration ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani. Hopes were high and my Iranian friends were more cordial than the last time I was there. Hey, it had been 15 years.
So while sitting on the bench inside the Iranian Parliament, I asked my guide, Mr. Merjaninejad, if I could maybe shoot a stand-up shot outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It was the site of a hostage crisis that lasted for 444 days, but perhaps more so for young Iranians, it was the location of “Argo,” the Oscar-winning Hollywood movie. Asking wouldn’t hurt anyway.
Iran’s Culture Ministry gave a green light. And magic happened. With the permission of the Foreign Ministry and the Culture Ministry, we became the first “Western” media to go inside the embassy compound that had been shut to the general public and to the press for more than three decades. That Monday morning, I knew I was in for a big story.
The building was intact, the garden lush with flowers. There was even a gardener taking care of the plants as we entered the big gate. He quickly smiled and disappeared. We took the steps that were covered with some real propaganda art, figures of babies dying under U.S. planes, al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Even though it was graffiti, there was a hidden quality to it.
‘Argo’ not a bad movie
The second floor, as my young guide told me, was the center of espionage right before the revolution. Iranians had turned that floor into a museum, much like the Spy Museum in Washington D.C. The first room on the right was the secret listening post. The second and the third ones were combined to make space for the embassy’s old equipment like computers, typewriters, wiretapping devices and even a paper shredder.
Our guide, who was specifically assigned to this building,did not let me quote him or take his picture. He was fun but serious in talking about U.S. technology in the 1970s. He praised the sophistication in the secrecy of the building. The hidden rooms, the doors, the encryption devices, et cetera. He had also watched “Argo.”
“It is not a bad movie” he said. “But Ben Affleck mistakenly thinks all students that invaded the building were puppets of the regime. Wrong! They really believed in the cause.”
Cengiz Çandar, the prominent columnist who was in Iran in the early days of the revolution, later reminded me that one of the prominent female figures of the embassy invasion, Masumeh Ebtekar, later became the vice president under reformist leader Mohammed Khatami.
The rooms, the devices, the old switchboard, the ambassador’s folding cabinet… All were kept clean and organized. Yes, there was some regime propaganda all around. But there were also pictures of the hostage crisis, shredded documents, passport photos of the embassy personnel’s kids. An academic in Iran affairs, Arif Keskin, told me later on the phone that it was no surprise that the CIA admitted its role in the 1953 coup that toppled the Mohammed Mossadegh government around the same time that we were given permission to show the entire world the U.S. embassy HQ in Tehran. “They never open these places to ordinary people,” he said. “If they did it, it is definitely for a reason.”
So what was the reason? The question still haunts me. But for CNNTürk and myself, this is the biggest story of the year. I will never forget the moment I entered the top-secret room where there were old telex and encryption machines. You had to go through three different layers of pass codes and even a retina detector.
Being a reporter in the Middle East has these surprises. One moment you may be stuck covering an ordinary event, the next moment something breathtaking happens. The secrets of the embassy are more than I can tell and more than Hollywood can show. But I, my cameraman, Emre, and CNNTürk are right in the middle of a diplomatic tango that could change the politics of the region.
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