The following article ran as part of a six-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 14-17, 2003.
When American diplomats were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, at the height of the Iranian revolution, one of the most galling aspects for Americans following the drama was that the fresh-faced spokesperson for the student hostage-takers was a young woman known as Sister Mary who spoke like an American.
Sister Mary's real name was Massoumeh Ebtekar. Just 19 at the time of the embassy seizure, Ebtekar was a graduate of an international high school in Tehran and before that an elementary student in suburban Philadelphia, where she lived while her father pursued a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.
After the revolution, she went on to earn a doctorate herself, in immunology. She raised two children, became involved in women's rights and was an adviser to the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, who defeated the conservative establishment candidate to become Iran's president in 1997.
Ebtekar now serves as one of Khatami's appointed vice presidents. She is also director of Iran's Department of the Environment, making her the highest-ranking woman in the Islamic Republic. She discussed her role, Iran's relations with the United States and her reflections on the revolution's first quarter-century in an interview with the Post-Dispatch in her downtown Tehran headquarters.
Ebtekar finished her schooling in Tehran. She was a college freshman when student activists seized the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, to protest U.S. support for Iran's deposed ruler, the shah. Ebtekar joined the protest, serving first as interpreter and then as a spokeswoman for the hostage-takers.
"I got involved with the revolution because I saw what the regime of the shah had stood for in Iran - with America's help - and how involved his regime had been in the brutal suppression of our people. Maybe it's because I had lived in America, had become friends with Americans, but I couldn't make the connection between what I had learned of American society and its mentality - and what I saw in my own country as the result of American policy."
The hostage-takers were portrayed as extremist fanatics, dupes of Iran's revolutionary mullahs, or both. Ebtekar says American policymakers misread what was really going on, then as now.
"They never comprehended that Iran is an inherently religious country, and that any government would have to comply with the culture of the country. They never really took the trouble to try to analyze and understand the Islamic Republic. It's very natural that two decades later it still goes on."
American experts who see Iran poised to embrace a secular democracy misread the current divisions in Iranian politics, Ebtekar says, and the range of potential outcomes.
"They think that in Iran the question between reformists and conservatives refers back to Western types of debate and that the reformists are focused on a totally secular Western-style democracy, which was never the case. It couldn't be, not in a culture where so many are religious."
But a "religious democracy," Ebtekar insists, is very much in place.
"Americans don't understand that there is a democratic process going on here, openly, especially under Khatami (who was elected to a second four-year term in 2001). We have no need for outsiders to come in and talk about freedom of speech, prisoners' rights or women's rights. These things are surfacing every day. There's nothing behind the scenes. Everything is discussed openly by the people. In fact, this is one of the most open societies in the world."
As head of Iran's environment ministry, Ebtekar says she welcomes the country's commitment to building a large nuclear power program. With a growing population and rapid industrial expansion, Iran needs nuclear power generation despite large reserves of oil and natural gas, she says.
"It's a serious problem here, our energy consumption patterns. If it's not changed, maybe within the next decade we won't be able to export petroleum products at all - but will have to import fuel for our cars. The main issue is attempting to diversify our energy sources."
Iranian officials insist that their nuclear program is for peaceful uses only. They dismiss U.S. claims to the contrary as disinformation and propaganda. Ebtekar says it's part of a bullying approach to issues that she says has characterized U.S. policy since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The service that the American civilization has done for humanity no one could deny, in science, technology, any field you name. But when you see what is being done today - turning America into this rogue state that stands against the international community, against the United Nations - every nation has a right and duty to speak out against it."
The United States severed relations with Iran during the hostage crisis and has not restored them since. U.S. officials say that for relations to be restored, Iran will have to do a lot, from dismantling its alleged nuclear weapons program to stopping support for anti-Israel resistance groups. Ebtekar says that from the Iranian point of view, the bigger obstacles are on the U.S. side.
"America has to stop its aggressive tone. It has to accept that Iran is an independent, dignified member of the international community. Maybe that's a painful process, but it has to be done."