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Iran's new chant is 'Death to no one!'

By Hamid Dabashi, Special to CNN
  • At age 25, Hamid Dabashi entered U.S. embassy in Tehran for a visa
  • Not long after, Iranian students held embassy hostage for 444 days
  • Dabashi says the bitterness between Iran and U.S. may one day end
  • He says Iran's youthful population wants to chart a new course

Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted." He is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His Web site is

NEW YORK (CNN) -- November 4 is the 30th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis, a turning point in Iranian history, in the geopolitics of the region and in the troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations.

On that day, militants, many of them students, invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking about 70 Americans as hostages in a drama that would last 444 days.

I am one of the last Iranian students who peacefully walked into the United States embassy in Tehran. I went there in July 1976 with a recently acquired Iranian passport and an even more recently obtained acceptance letter from the University of Pennsylvania, and an I-20 form, as we called it then. Then a 25-year-old, I applied for a visa, received one and boarded a plane to Philadelphia.

In just about a second and a half, the way time flies these days, I will turn 60, and I will have a claim over Philadelphia and New York as my successive hometowns more than I do over the cities in which I was born and received my college education, Ahvaz and Tehran.

I've seen both sides of the tension between Iran and the United States: Two homelands that have so far failed to connect on friendly terms. My time in America began with the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter presidential debates.

When the hostages were taken in Tehran, President Carter ordered the cancellation of our student visas. That meant we had to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, secure a temporary extension of our status, and forfeit any possibility of leaving the country -- for we would have not been allowed back -- until we could obtain the much-coveted green card.

Ted Koppel began counting the days of the hostage crisis on "Nightline." It made for a difficult time when I had to face my American classmates and colleagues.

Over the last month, and in anticipation of this day, an open-ended war has been waged between the supporters of the status quo in Iran and the champions of change in Iranian political culture.

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and its clerical supporters are gearing up for business as usual of "Death to America!" chants and marches to mark the anniversary, the nonviolent, grassroots, civil rights movement has produced its own posters and placards, leading with the chant: "Death to no one!"

If Americans are cursed with a very short memory, Iranians have been plagued with very long recollections. They talk about the Arab/Muslim conquest of the mid-seventh century AD as if it happened the day before yesterday, and they consider the CIA-engineered coup of 1953 as if it were indeed yesterday. But this year, commemoration of historical events has turned into a battle for a happier and healthier future, rather than a tiresome marking of the troublesome past.

Iran and the United States have charted divergent and hostile paths over the last 30 years. The legitimate fear of a U.S.-led coup on the model of 1953 resulted in an illegitimate breach of diplomatic immunity and the taking over of the U.S. embassy and its staff.

Ayatollah Khomeini then abused that crisis to build a theocracy and crack down on all alternative claims on that revolution. When the American hostages had served their purpose, Khomeini's regime released them in January 1981. By then he had bigger fish to fry in the course of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Under that smoke screen (which he prolonged long after Saddam Hussein had realized his folly and was ready for peace talks) Khomeini cracked down even more violently on internal opposition.

On the American side, the story was no less sad and catastrophic. Under President Reagan and subsequent U.S. administrations, Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth to confront the Islamic Republic.

At the same time, the Afghan Mujahedeen (soon to be transmuted into "the Taliban") were even more massively armed (via Pakistani intelligence and Saudi money -- fueled by militant Wahabism) to battle the Soviets and prevent the spread of the Shia-inspired Iranian revolution into Central Asia. The strategy succeeded, the Islamic revolution turned inward, killed its own children and aggressively degenerated into a terrorizing theocracy.

But soon the two monsters the United States and its allies had created, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, came back to haunt their creators.

Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait soon after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, almost at the same time that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operation, feeding on the Talibanization of Afghanistan, began a series of terrorist attacks on U.S. interests that ultimately culminated in the events of 9/11. That resulted in the U.S. led-invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and of Iraq in March 2003. And our world has remained in the grips of the decades-old spiral of violence ever since.

Roger Cohen has written a column for the New York Times speculating about what would have happened if the massive June demonstrations in Iran had been successful in dismantling the Islamic republic. One must also wonder what would have happened if the coup of 1953 had not implanted a national trauma in Iran that laid the groundwork for Ayatollah Khomeini's anti-American measures and the creation of a repressive government.

When on November 4, you see throngs of young Iranians chanting "Death to No one!" they are not just challenging the brutal theocracy that is distorting their history and abusing their youth, they are also raising a gentle accusatory finger at their own parental generation.

I am father to four American children -- two born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and two in New York City -- who have never set foot in their parental homeland. The Iran they now watch on television, track on the Internet, and follow in the news is no longer paralyzed by the post-traumatic syndrome of the 1953 coup.

A young generation of Iranians -- 80 percent of the population under the age of 40, 70 percent under 30, 50 percent under 25 -- seems determined to chart a future free from their parental follies.

So one day with the first direct flight from JFK to Mehrabad Airport, I, too, might take my children, two of them now old enough to have voted for President Obama, to the other side of who they are -- and of who they must proudly be.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hamid Dabashi.