Former U.S. Embassy in Iran: mistrust endures where hostages held

Story highlights

  • CNN tours old embassy building in Tehran - part time warp, part propaganda museum
  • It shows no sign of terror around 1979-81 hostage crisis
  • But counter area where U.S. Marine guards had been posted still intact
  • Murals reinforce conspiracy theories around 9/11 attacks

Nearly 35 years ago, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and began a painful chapter for America as the "Great Satan."

Today, the building where anti-Americanism raged and captives were held for 444 days is now an Islamic cultural center and a propaganda museum of sorts for the Islamic Revolution.

CNN's Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto visited the complex this week. It is rare for westerners to walk its halls.

Although the two-story building shows no signs of terror from the 1979-81 hostage crisis, it remains a symbol of mistrust that still endures for many.

Upon entering, the counter area where U.S. Marine guards had been posted when the embassy was seized is intact, as is the colorful tile work on some of the walls.

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There are offices on the first floor, while exhibits are displayed on the second.

Upstairs is an office where CNN's guide says the CIA was housed. The entrance is the door to a vault.

"Is it the same combination that it was?" Sciutto asks.

"Yes," the guide responds, explaining the students who stormed the building extracted the combination from hostages during what he said were "negotiations."

Past the vault door, the Iranians claim was the secure section where the CIA worked.

That's a reason the guide gives for the takeover, which was dramatized in the Oscar-winning film Argo.

While many Iranians have grown disillusioned with the Islamic revolution, anti-American anger endures.

"Do you still believe it was justified to hold the Americans as hostages?" the guide is asked.

"Definitely, yes." he says. "Based on international law the U.S. embassy should function as the embassy and not interfere in internal affairs. It's like somebody is snooping around your house. What would you do?"

Each room and every piece of equipment is an exhibit.

There is a sound-proof meeting room, encrypted Telex machines -- one marked as belonging to the National Security Agency -- and the shredders said to have been used by embassy staff to destroy secret documents as the diplomatic facility fell to the revolutionaries.

Revolutionary propaganda is everywhere. Bright red murals cover the main stairway walls leading to the second floor.

The paintings tell a familiar Middle Eastern conspiracy theory claiming the United States was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"Do you believe America brought down the twin towers?" the guide is asked about the World Trade Center in New York.

"For sure, yes," he replies adamantly.

Why would America would kill its own people?

"They wanted to make their people believe they are in danger so they could attack other countries," he says. "Do you think that it's possible a plane can crash such a building?"

Officially, the United States and Iran have softened their tone more recently.

The two are participating in international negotiations to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions over the long term in exchange for easing economic sanctions. An interim deal is in place for the next six months.

"Let's say America and Iran both abide by the agreement. Can you ever imagine American diplomats returning to this embassy?" Sciutto asks the guide.

He smiles and laughs.

"You cannot trust America," he says. "America is the Great Satan."