Not open to the public, tourists rarely get inside the ‘US Den of Espionage’ in Iran’s capital, Tehran. On one random Saturday in September, I did, but I wasn’t expecting to see what filled its eerie interior.
The former US Embassy in Tehran is not hard to miss; its long and imposing walls are coated in colourful, provocative murals and slogans denouncing the USA as the ‘Great Satan’ and ‘the most hated government in the world’.
Today, this mysterious building is a magnet for tourists eager to photograph and peer over its walls, trying to envisage the historical day that completely severed diplomatic ties between the two countries, and which further propelled the construction of modern day Iran.
On November 4, 1979, militant students supporting the Iranian Revolution leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed and seized the US embassy, claiming the US was orchestrating a CIA plot to undermine the Revolution, especially with its continued support of and asylum granted to the then overthrown (Royal) Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
This day sparked an international crisis that saw 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days. The US broke off all diplomatic relations following the release of all hostages, but they have never been restored since.
The Former US Embassy in Tehran and Its Meaning Today
The Iranian government dubbed “US Den of Espionage” is now home to hardline defenders of the Revolution – the Sepah militia – and is used as a training ground for the Revolutionary Guards and a stage for anti-US demonstrations.
Heavily guarded and concealed, it is said tourists are often told to leave the area (I never was), yet the murals of the skull-head statue of liberty, American flags covered with guns and barbed wire, and anti-Israel messaging are all too fascinating. Walk along a bit further and you will find the ‘Down With USA’ mural that greets all who enter and exit the metro station.
On the surface, the images confirm the country’s anti-US sentiments that we often hear about in Western media; in reality you’ll soon find them conflicting with the aspirations and outlook of today’s open-minded generation.
Inside the building the sentiment of that day continues with a ‘museum’ depicting the stages of the ‘Iranian Hostage Crisis’ and a showcase of further artwork, alongside machinery, documents and other evidence found inside during the takeover.
How to Get Inside the Den of Espionage in Tehran
When I first visited the ‘Den’ during the Tehran segment of my G Adventures Iran tour, every person in the group wanted to visit, hoping our Persian guide would help us gain entry. Rumour has it that it’s only open for a few days in the first two weeks of February, yet the man at the gate told her that they would be letting people in that coming Saturday. But with the tour ending by then, and my guide no longer around to ease the process, it seemed like a futile prospect.
Despite having to be in a guided tour because I am British, I had two days afterwards to explore to Tehran independently – moving independently around the country as a Brit isn’t permitted.
Approaching the gate with another traveller friend in tow, I asked about entry only to be told it wasn’t possible. My reasoning about my guide’s earlier conversation was still met with strong dismissal. I continued to plead that I was told to come back on this day armed with cash. It was still a no. Just with a continued persuasive calmness and a dash of cheeky determination, we eventually settled on a deal that set us back nearly 1 million Rial ($40).
We didn’t know what the real role our ‘guide’ played there, but our hearts were racing knowing we were finally about to enter one of the most coveted buildings in all of Iran.
Espionage and Vengeance On Show
From reconstructions of soundproof dens, spying equipment and machinery, alongside the pieced together shredded documents which the hostages frantically tried to destroy during the takeover (which have since be turned into books), this place was as shocking as imagined.
I think even I would have been anti-US if I found this labyrinth of a spy network.
Should you Visit the Den of Espionage?
The “US Den of Espionage” is a significant element of the constriction of the Iranian regime’s psyche and while there is no guarantee of entry, even just a glimpse at the murals is essential in trying to understand the components that make up modern-day Iran and its ‘political’ fervency.
More importantly, one should visit to make up their own mind about the situation, while observing that the local people who walk past… simply pay no attention at all.
Things to Know:
- Gaining entry is purely about luck and good timing. Rarely open to the public, local people and hotel workers will give you differing stories. It is said to only be officially open from 1 to 10 February each year
- While I don’t condone parting with cash that goes straight to the militia group supporting the revolution, this sadly appears to be the only way in. An unofficial entry fee, we were informed that those on National Service work here also. Whether they see any of those funds is unknown
- At the time of visiting, it was said that plans were in place for the removal of all anti-US murals across the capital within a matter of months. Pressure mounts for moderate President Rouhani, who is seen to be paving the way for more open political relations, especially in light of the current tensions over Iran’s nuclear programmes
- An easy to digest timeline of events of the ‘Iranian Hostage Crisis’ can be found here