x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Former hostage hails Obama's Iran efforts

"Thirty years is too long not to talk to each other - it makes no sense," said Bruce Laingen, held hostage in 1979.

Jimmy Carter, then the outgoing US president, with Bruce Laingen, at a hospital in Germany in 1981 after the hostages' release.
Jimmy Carter, then the outgoing US president, with Bruce Laingen, at a hospital in Germany in 1981 after the hostages' release.

Bruce Laingen's last words to the Iranian hostage-takers who had held him and dozens of other American diplomats captive for more than a year were remarkably magnanimous. As he boarded an aircraft to freedom nearly 30 years ago, Mr Laingen, the most senior of those diplomats, told the hostage-takers: "I look forward to the day when your country and mine can again have a normal relationship."

Mr Laingen, whose diplomatic career spanned 38 years, is delighted that the US state department is now authorising American embassies around the world to invite Iranian diplomats to Fourth of July celebrations for the first time in nearly three decades. "Thirty years is too long not to talk to each other - it makes no sense," he said during a telephone interview from his home in Bethesda, Maryland, where he is retired.

The gesture, already known as "hot dog" diplomacy, is the latest expression of goodwill from the Obama administration to Iran, coming days before watershed elections there. "This is very much in line with our policy of trying to engage with the Iranian government," said a US state department spokesman. Mr Laingen, 86, has the distinction of hosting the last July 4 reception at the US embassy in Tehran before it was seized on Nov 4 1979 by militant students who held 52 American diplomats and other personnel for the next 444 days. Today, the defunct embassy houses a detachment of Revolutionary Guards and an anti-American museum.

Mr Laingen had arrived as chief of mission in Tehran in an optimistic mood on June 16 1979, four months after the Islamic Revolution. It was meant to be a temporary posting. His brief as chargé d'affaires was to build a new relationship with the jittery revolutionary regime and persuade it that Washington had no intention of working with the exiled shah or attempting to restore him to the throne. Mr Laingen was well received by secular officials of the provisional government of the revolution, which was headed by the prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, a veteran liberal leader who was an uncomfortable ally of Ayatollah Khomeini and other hardline clerics.

Having made what he thought was a "good start", Mr Laingen decided to press ahead with a July 4 reception at his residence in the US Embassy compound in central Tehran. It was less than three weeks after his arrival. The party, held at noon, was surprisingly well-attended by Iranian officials, among them the foreign minister and army chief of staff although, as far as Mr Laingen recalls, no clerics came. The atmosphere was guarded but friendly and "upbeat". No alcohol was served in deference to the Islamic sensitivities of Iranian guests.

Mr Laingen, raising a glass of fruit juice, did attempt to get the US-educated foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, to join him in a toast. "He was reluctant to participate in that because that was probably too much of a [friendly] gesture [to the US] that he could live with right then," Mr Laingen said. But the two men had "good conversation" and the reception received some favourable local press coverage.

"I'm an optimist by nature and I was more optimistic that day [of the July 4 party] than I probably should have been," Mr Laingen said. Hopes among American diplomats that the successful reception might augur well for the durability of the US embassy in revolutionary Iran were soon shattered. The compound, called the "den of spies" by radicals, was stormed four months later, after the US agreed to admit the Shah for medical treatment.

Tehran, which long suspected the US was conspiring to restore him to power, saw this as a hostile act. Within 24 hours of the embassy seizure, Bazargan resigned along with his cabinet. The embassy's seizure was a serious blow for Iranian moderates such as the late Bazargan, whom Mr Laingen describes as a "classic Iranian gentleman" and "friend of the US". It cemented the Islamic Revolution for Ayatollah Khomeini and his radical supporters who did not share Bazargan's hopes of a liberal democracy and accommodation with the West. Within months, Washington had severed ties with Tehran.

Mr Laingen and two other American officials were at Iran's foreign ministry when the embassy was seized and held separately from the other hostages, who spent most of their captivity in the embassy compound. But after an ill-fated secret US military mission to rescue the hostages in April 1980, many of the captives were moved out of Tehran to strongholds around the country for varying periods before being returned to the embassy.

Near the end of the hostage crisis, Mr Laingen and his two colleagues, still confined at the Iranian foreign ministry, were taken by militants to a prison where they were held for several weeks in solitary confinement at the end of their captivity. "It was a nice, cold, hard, dark prison - I wouldn't recommend it," he said dryly. But many of the hostages "had a far worse time than I did". All 52 were freed on Jan 20 1981.

Now, nearly 30 years later, it remains to be seen whether any Iranian diplomats will attend July 4 functions. Nor is it clear whether such invitations have been issued yet. The state department's cable to US missions authorising them such invitations was sent only last Friday. Many Iranian diplomats in Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries will be spared any agonising over whether to accept - assuming Tehran gives the green light to do so - because most US embassies in the region have already had their parties in springtime. Annual Independence Day celebrations are routinely held early to avoid the July heat and the summer holiday period when many local dignitaries on prospective guest lists are abroad.

John Limbert, another former American diplomat held hostage during the embassy siege, also hailed Mr Obama's latest gesture to Tehran. "For 30 years we've been in this no-war, no-peace situation where we're yelling at each other and trading insults and it hasn't gotten us anywhere and it hasn't gotten the Iranians anywhere," Mr Limbert, a fluent Farsi speaker married to an Iranian, told The National.

In Iran, meanwhile, several of the student leaders who led the US embassy seizure, are now among Tehran's most pro-reform politicians, outspokenly endorsing dialogue with Washington. But, said Mr Laingen, the lead for dialogue has to be taken at the top in Tehran. "He's [Obama] been saying and doing the right things. There's a limit to what he can say and do without some response from that side [Iran]. We need something more than a suggestion from [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad that we need to change our behaviour."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae