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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is using the former embassy of Iran as the newest backdrop for its campaign to isolate the government in Tehran.
A highly produced video recorded by the State Department outside the old embassy in Washington seeks to draw a contrast between how the two countries have behaved since the Iranian Revolution four decades years ago. Yet it could also open up the administration to the criticism that it is exploiting a diplomatic facility and Iranian asset for propaganda.
The video appears aimed at circumventing the Tehran government to make a case to citizens in Iran and the diaspora why they should cease support for the government, an ultimate goal of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign.”
The State Department is circulating the video on its social media platforms in Farsi that target Iranian audiences, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Telegram.
NBC News journalists spotted senior U.S. officials who work on Iran policy earlier this month with a film crew outside the embassy along Washington’s Massachusetts Ave., known as “Embassy Row.” A copy of the video was then shared with NBC News ahead of its release.
In the video, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, strolls pensively past the ornate teal-and-beige embassy. He says in English that the U.S. has been caring for the embassy’s security, maintenance and landscaping for 40 years, since the countries cut ties amid the revolution.
“Even the Persian rugs and artwork that were once here are still preserved in temperature-controlled storage facilities to give back to the Iranian people once our diplomatic ties are restored,” Hook says.
“I wish I could say the same for the government in Tehran,” he adds, as the screen shows black and white images of a blindfolded man and three captors, ostensibly from the Iran hostage crisis.
Other images in the video contrast the sleepy street scene outside the Iranian embassy with scenes of violence, poverty, protests and fighters with shoulder-fired rockets in Iran.
The Trump administration has struggled to bring other countries along in its strategy to put enough pressure on the Iranian government that it either changes course or collapses. Following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, other world powers who are a part of that deal have refused to follow the U.S. by withdrawing or re-imposing sanctions on Iran.
The gulf among allies was on display last week during a U.S.-sponsored Mideast summit in Warsaw and over the weekend when Vice President Mike Pence attended the Munich Security Conference.
Hook, the Iran envoy, told NBC News that the idea for the video emerged during an afternoon drive past the embassy, as he observed how meticulously the embassy is maintained. The U.S. government took control of the embassy decades ago after the U.S. Embassy in Iran was seized.
“We follow the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the Iranian regime violates it,” Hook says. “There’s something hopeful about how we are maintaining their embassy, and someday we will return the keys to the Iranian people."
He said the Iranians had turned the American embassy in Iran into a “propaganda museum open to the public,” adorned with “Death to America” signs. He said polling in Iran indicates that the Iranian public doesn’t share that view.
“It’s just another example of how badly this regime represents its own people to the world,” Hook says.