Iran: Stepping Into A CIA Spider Web

Passerby at Ex US Embassy Tehran
Passerby at Ex-US Embassy Tehran

Tehran, Iran – The four words ‘DOWN WITH THE USA’ prominently stood out of the white concrete wall. They looked so full of life, fuming and screaming in defiance, as I stood next to the graffiti right outside the busy exit of the Taleqani Metro Station on Taleqani Avenue in Tehran.

The bold, iconic message etched on the wall was the handiwork of enthusiastic members of a Tehran-based students’ union. That message, among many others, had been commissioned by the Iranian government during the early 1980s and the brightly-painted words have been touched up umpteen times since then to ensure they remain attractive.

The scorching anti-American slogan stands out in bright yellow and brick red colours on a white backdrop with a thick blue border. It’s too eye-catching and, of course, too provocative to miss for those who happen to pass by the Taleqani Metro Station exit.

What makes the audacious message even more special is the fact that the concrete wall on Taleqani Avenue that I am talking about here is the one that surrounds the former US embassy in Tehran.

Less than 24 hours after my arrival in Tehran, I showed up at the site of the former US embassy in the heart of the chaotic Iranian capital – a hallowed location on the map of global geopolitics. I didn’t want to risk trying to enter the complex as a journalist that I was. Hence, I flew in to Tehran via Muscat, officially pretending to be just a self-employed casual tourist and a photography bug looking to enjoy the sights and sounds of Iran.

Bracing up for the big surprise, I decided to first take a short walk down the front face of the site before proceeding to the main complex later on. Basically, I wanted to have a look at the murals that are known to have turned the embassy wall into a ‘celebrity’ of sorts.

What I saw on that wall along a quarter mile’s stretch just blew me away. It was packed with politically-charged graffiti. From courageous to outrageous, the graffiti was bright, colourful and a priceless treasure trove of statist propaganda. The graphic messages on the wall belittled the governments of the US, UK, Israel and Saudi Arabia – Iran’s opponents on the global diplomatic chessboard.


While walking down the footpath along the embassy wall, I stumbled upon a deliberately-distorted painting of the Statue of Liberty. It was a remarkable piece of artwork (dark art, of course), with the face sporting a devious smile. The original welcoming countenance of the iconic statue had been transformed into a devilish-looking skull-face, accompanied by ghostly, sunken eyes and a frightening, skeletal grin. The right arm that held the torch aloft had also been distorted on purpose. It was painted in a way to give the impression that it belonged to a brutally powerful, muscular man – symbolising US military might.

Next to the dark art, there was another mural that showed barbed wires extending out of a gigantic American flag and superimposing the map of Iran, representing the US government’s ambitions of controlling Iran’s internal affairs. In another painting, US fighter jets were shown to be showering scary-looking missiles on a beautiful Iranian bird’s nest containing a flock of innocent-looking white birds. Then there was one mural in which a gigantic satellite dish (representing Western corporate media) was setting a bunch of pretty, colourful flowers on fire – symbolising the damaging influence of Western propaganda.

On another section of the wall, there was a huge painting of a hand gun standing out in the backdrop of wonderfully-painted Iranian miniature art. The painting represented the possibility of a US military intervention in Iran that could wreck the country’s art and culture.

A smaller mural showed the flag of Israel prominently fluttering atop the US Capitol Hill building. Right next to that was the painting of the American flag in black and white, punctured all over with bullet holes – symbolising the regrettable consequences that the US might have to suffer as a result of its perpetual bonhomie with Israel.

Whether you look at the graffiti as audacious wall art from the politically-sensitive Iranian youth or as blatant government-fuelled propaganda targeting the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the artwork would leave you impressed.

I clicked pictures of the wall art as I was moving on from one captivating mural to the other, capturing the colourful gems on my lens. All along, routine life was rolling along as usual, with the locals walking by in customary haste and the bumper-to-bumper traffic stuttering along.

When I was done with the graffiti, I headed towards the main entrance of the US embassy complex. In the lead-up to the visit, I must add here that I had to take great pains to double-check if the embassy gates would remain open at the time of my visit. The Iranian government threw the place open to the public in early 2017. But the site remains closed for outsiders more often than not – and without notice.

I seemed to have struck gold that day, though. The site was open. (Even if it wasn’t, I would have made another attempt some other day during my three-week-long spell). At the main gate, I purchased a ticket for 100,000 Iranian Rials (that’s 10,000 Iranian Tomans or 2.70 US dollars). The ticket gave me access to two locations: the Museum Garden of Anti-Arrogance (which is the lawn leading to the former US embassy building) and the so-called ‘US Den of Espionage’ (the embassy building itself).

As I stepped into the complex, I was taken in by a sense of history – it was a strange feeling. A lot of things began to swirl in my head. There I was, standing at that hallowed place, which was the theatre of the most dramatic chapter of Iran’s history after the 1979 Revolution – the storming of the US embassy.


While the 1979 Revolution is the most prominent chapter in the history of modern-day Persia, the drama surrounding the former US embassy in Tehran is the undisputed highpoint. The embassy site witnessed the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the epic ordeal that marked the darkest phase of US-Iran relations.

On November 4, 1979, a swarm of Iranian youngsters, tacitly backed by the new anti-Shah government, stormed the US embassy and took in 52 American nationals as hostages. The list of captives included senior US government officials, intelligence officers and several ordinary American passport holders. The ensuing hostage drama didn’t just last for a few days or weeks, but dragged on for 444 days.

The 52 Americans were held in captivity at the embassy site itself by members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line (MSFIL), an entity that supported the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the Iranian Revolution came to an end in February-end 1979, an Iranian takeover of US assets and American facilities on Iranian soil had been on the cards.

By the time all the hostages were released on January 20, 1981, their captivity had become the longest hostage saga ever in human history. That unenviable record is yet to be broken.


Armed with the priceless ticket, I went in, stepping onto a pretty, little garden. It was actually a well-maintained lawn, named ‘Museum Garden of Anti-Arrogance’ by the Iranian government. It didn’t take me long to figure out why the place was called so, and I spent a good while admiring the unusual ‘exhibits’ that were peppered all over the garden.

Those ‘exhibits’ – there were close to 50 of them – were basically large protest posters depicting ingenuous and cheeky political artwork contributed by politically-aware student communities in Tehran. The open air garden-cum-arthouse is a project that’s run by the Student Basij Organization, which is a student body supported by the Iranian government.

The posters had a distinct agenda. They were aimed at deriding the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US-led Western world. The mainstream, corporate media was targeted as well. Very artfully drawn, sketched and painted, the posters took a dig at the interventionist policies of foreign powers.


As a journalist, I was particularly amazed with a couple of posters that masterfully slammed the giants of Western corporate media – CNN and BBC. One poster showed a blown-up version of the CNN logo, but with a wacky modification. The famous logo, representing the letters C-N-N, was made to look like a dangerous snake, with a scary, forked tongue ominously sticking out of the serpent’s head. The artwork implied that the American media’s coverage of news relating to Iran was as dangerous as the venom of a killer snake.

In the other poster, the students took a dig at BBC. Yet again, the artist modified the famed logo of BBC, making the letters B-B-C appear like little soldiers, brandishing AK-47s, hiding behind shields and doggedly marching ahead – seemingly towards a war with Iran. Right underneath, the caption said – ‘Sponsored Terrorists’. Clearly, it was a swipe at the popular British corporate media house, which has historically towed the line of the American press whenever it came to reporting about Iran.

As my attention went from one poster to the other, I was impressed by the artists’ audacity and verve for mocking at the Western powers in their inimitable style. One poster showcased a life-sized peacock, but there was a significant anti-American touch to it. The star-studded blue body of the beautiful bird was made to resemble the stars of the US flag. The peacock’s feathers, which were shown to be spectacularly fanned out all over the canvas, had bright red-and-white stripes, portraying the stripes of the American flag. Most notably, eye-shaped spots that are typically seen on fanned-out peacock tails, were drawn prominently to send out a particular message – despite the US being as elegant as a peacock, its government perpetually keeps a close watch on everyone with Big Brother-like eyes. It was as Orwellian as it could be.

Another poster tried to convey the message through a simple but powerful sketch that the US military was engulfing the entire planet through its expanding influence. The illustration showed the Statue of Liberty standing upright atop the planet, with the iconic torch on the outstretched right hand alight with fire. Smoke billowed from the torch and enveloped the world, plunging it into darkness.


USAID, the US government-backed international aid agency, wasn’t spared either. A poster mocked at the aid giant’s underlying intentions of expanding America’s global over-reach. The artwork showed USAID dropping missiles somewhere, with the missile-heads deceptively covered in vibrant Mickey Mouse masks. The poster basically served as a reminder of how soft powers, like US-backed international aid agencies, strategically infiltrate weaker nations and dominate them through cultural terrorism.

In one of the posters, the US was shown as a comically overweight old man in a hat sitting on an undersized rocking chair, diligently knitting a pullover on which it was written – Daesh (Islamic State). Through the image, the artist was trying to assert that the pampered American government had on its own created the menace called Islamic State right from scratch, and that Islamic terrorism in general was basically an American creation.

Another poster carried a very creative piece of artistry portraying the two-faced nature of American diplomacy. It showed an unsuspecting diplomat warmly shaking hands with an American diplomat, only to discover instantly after the handshake that one of his fingers had been sheepishly chopped off by the American diplomatic. The message? If you are a small country, don’t fall for feel-good diplomatic gestures from the US because eventually you would be deceived and defrauded.


Another poster worth mention was a clever modification of the American flag, showing the red stripes as machine guns. Next to the nozzles of the guns (or the red stripes) were the words – Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Vietnam, North Korea and Kuwait. These are the same countries against which the US government has taken various interventionist steps in the past.

The US domination over West Asian oil resources was the theme in one of the posters. It showed a hilariously-decorated American military man proudly hoisting the US flag over an oil rig. Crude oil dripped from the oil-drenched stars-and-stripes flag, underlining America’s perpetual stake in the region’s oil business.

There was an equally good one, another very cheeky one actually, about the Oscar award. In the poster, the Oscar trophy was modified to depict a robber wearing a black mask and embracing a long rifle. Through the poster, the artist was perhaps trying to say that cultural influences like Hollywood are American tools of global domination and mind control.


I freely clicked photographs of all the protest posters, before proceeding towards the main building in the heart of the complex. The former embassy looked imposing. It was painted in brick red and appeared well-maintained.

The building has the look-and-feel of a high school from 1930s America. For its notably school-style look, the embassy was often jokingly called ‘Henderson High’ – in reference to Loy Henderson, who was the US Ambassador to Iran during the early 1950s when the building came up.

Ever since the site was stormed and seized by supporters of the Iranian Revolution in November 1979, the US government has been represented in Iran by the embassy of Switzerland, which is based in Tehran.

‘Henderson High’ has until now been looked after by the Iranian government-backed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), popularly known as the Revolutionary Guards.

As I walked into the hallowed building, I was taken aback to find a huge, brown, dusty doormat at the entrance with four startling words printed on it – ‘Down with the USA’. Audacious, to say the least! What was once a venue of the embassy of the mighty US had been turned into a US-bashing propaganda workshop.

The closed-down embassy apparently happens to be the site of an elaborate CIA surveillance base that was said to have been discovered by the Iranian government following the storming of the premises on November 4, 1979.

Soon after the so-called discovery, the Iranian government renamed the embassy site as the ‘US Den of Espionage’, informally referred to as the ‘Den of Spies’.


The story goes somewhat like this. When the Iranian young guns stormed the US embassy, they discovered a full-fledged US-installed intelligence facility that was operating inside the building itself. Upset with the US government following the ‘discovery’ of the CIA base, the then government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized all the valuable documents and state-of-the-art equipment at the CIA hideout and much later turned the controversial venue into a museum that could be visited by Iranians and foreign tourists.

The idea behind exposing the place to the public? To let the world know that the Americans were clandestinely running surveillance operations right inside Iranian territory, targeting the Iranian people and the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was ironically a staunch US ally at that time!

When the hostage crisis happened, there was a raging debate in the initial days about whether Iran’s claims were too tall – that the 52 American hostages also included a few CIA operatives. Later on, it emerged that the claim was indeed true. There were three CIA men among the captives – Tom Ahern, who was based in Iran for eight months, Bill Daugherty, who was recruited as a CIA officer in January 1979, and Malcolm Kalp, a CIA officer who arrived in Tehran just four days before the embassy was stormed.

Upon entering the embassy building, as I took the stairs to the first floor (which houses the CIA hideout), I was greeted by dazzling spray-painted graffiti that could be seen on the building’s inner walls. Iranian artists used bright colours to create larger-than-life, out-of-the-box artwork that slammed the US government, US military and their proximity to the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia.


I reached the first floor and found that the place was a beehive of little, interconnected rooms, with countless exhibits in glass casings on display. The exhibits included complex and advanced surveillance equipment that the CIA had been covertly using on the Iranians up to the late 1970s. There were bugging devices of various shapes and sizes, phone-tapping gadgets that you only see in James Bond-style flicks, documentation-destroying tools that you’ve never heard of and a vault of classified paperwork.

As I went from one room to another, I clicked photographs of the fascinating exhibits. There were chunky recording devices, complicated wiretapping set-ups, computers that now look outdated but were state-of-the-art at that time, high-end data-processing equipment and typing machines.

There was a device that was apparently used by the US intelligence office to turn sensitive paperwork into powder. The printed words, National Security Agency (NSA) – now dreaded all over the world following the Edward Snowden revelations – were embossed on one of the computer systems.

There were a couple of secret rooms in the CIA hideout that were obviously no longer secrets after the 1979 siege. One of them was the glass room, where diplomatic-level negotiations supposedly used to take place. The inside of that room could be seen clearly from the outside and it was covered from all four sides by soundproof, bulletproof glass. Inside the room, the museum authorities have placed three dummy human figures on chairs around a desk, basically to simulate a round of diplomatic talks.

Another secret room worth mentioning was the vault room. It was a small, heavily iron-clad, soundproof facility with a thick metal door, which had five metallic layers. The fortifications were apparently meant to ensure that the highly-classified documentation and sensitive work that was carried out by the CIA officials in that room remained confidential and safe.

I have seen fortified metal doors of treasure chests, but I had never quite seen a safety door as multi-layered and monstrous as this one!


One little room simply took the cake. The Iranian caretakers of the venue have labelled it as the ‘Paper Forgery Room’. On display over there were two typing machines on an office desk cluttered with a mountain of sensitive paperwork and office stationery. Right above the desk, there was a shelf packed with numerous spray cans, chemical bottles and metal casings of various shapes and sizes, apparently containing substances that were used by the CIA operatives to forge documents. Right next to the typing machines, there were passport-sized photograph sets of unknown individuals and a couple of fake passports.

As I was trying to take a good at the fake passports on display, an official guide showed up and started explaining to us the significance of the paper forgery room. “This used to be a very, very important room for the CIA,” said the Iranian lady (name withheld), who was the chief guide in charge of the site. “These typing machines and the assortments were once upon a time used to create forged passports. Basically, during those days, a lot of undercover agents from the CIA used to move in and out of Iran. This passport forgery set-up was meant to cook up their fake IDs and visa paperwork, so that they could move around under various aliases.”

Nadim Siraj is a New Delhi-based independent journalist and traveller, who recently visited Iran to write a book on Iranian geopolitics (book in progress). He has worked with leading Indian newspapers, The Indian Express, The Statesman, and has written for Times of India, Deccan Chronicle. He has also lived in West Asia, in Muscat, where he worked with Muscat Daily. He has co-authored a digital travelogue on Greece, Into the Sunset, has produced documentary films and is also a photojournalist.


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