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Iran: Former Hostage Reflects On U.S. Embassy Takeover

  • Charles Recknagel

Twenty years ago today, the taking of American diplomats hostage in Iran set off a crisis from which U.S.-Iranian relations have never recovered. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel asks a former hostage to reflect on those events.

Prague, 4 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When a group of Iranian students stormed into the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, they took more than 50 Americans hostage. John Limbert was among those seized.

For 444 days, Limbert and his colleagues were held at the embassy, and then -- after a failed U.S. rescue attempt -- in a variety of small hideaways. By the time they were finally released, Washington had broken all diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and slapped trade sanctions on it. The two countries -- 20 years later -- have yet to restore relations.

Limbert -- who continues to work for the U.S. State Department -- told RFE/RL by phone from Washington that when he looks back today at his captivity, his primary emotion is sorrow. He says he finds the tragedy of the episode not in the difficulties he and the other hostages suffered but in the decades-long damage the crisis has done to U.S.-Iranian relations and to Iran itself. John Limbert says:

"What happened to us was unpleasant. It was difficult at times, it was scary at times, it was uncomfortable at times. But what happened to Iran and to U.S.-Iranian relations was really much worse."

Limbert says that the militant students who took him hostage ostensibly were protesting an action of Washington's. Washington had given refuge to Iran's former Shah, who was deposed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But he says the hostage-taking was immediately supported by the Islamic Revolution's then leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as a means to achieve two much bigger goals. Those were to complete the isolation of the revolution from the West and to purge its early coalition leadership of the secularists and moderates who opposed his dream of a cleric-ruled state. Limbert says:

"[There] were three issues involved in [the hostage event]. One was the return of the Shah, I mean the ostensible purpose of it, but the other was to torpedo, to block any possibility of a normal state-to-state relation between an Islamic Republic Iran and the United States. But third ... and probably [this was most important, was to drive people out of the revolutionary coalition whose views were perhaps more open-minded and tolerant then others within that coalition."

Limbert says the hostage crisis helped to fuel an atmosphere of crisis and hysteria which -- along with a violent crackdown by hardliners against dissent within Iran -- effectively silenced moderate voices for most of the next 20 years.

Moderate voices have only begun consistently to be heard again in Iran since the election of President Mohammad Khatami. He was elected two years ago on promises of a more open society. Khatami also has called for greater openings to the West, including cultural exchanges -- but not political relations -- with the United States.

However, any efforts toward thawing ties with Washington are vigorously opposed by Iran's powerful conservative forces, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Washington has said it is ready to work on a road map to better ties, but says it will not lift sanctions until Iran first stops supporting terrorists abroad.

Limbert finds it ironic that the more outspoken moderates in Iran today include some of the same militants who took him hostage two decades ago.

One of the largest reformist student groups today is the Office to Consolidate Unity, whose founders led the takeover of the U.S. Embassy. The student group boycotted today's annual mass demonstration in Tehran, at which the embassy-taking is traditionally commemorated by burning U.S. flags. Instead, the students held a restrained, alternative commemoration yesterday which avoided anti-American gestures.

The former hostage says he believes the moderation of some of his former militant guards indicates that they now understand the damage they did to their own lives by deliberately radicalizing Iranian society.

"Now what they are doing in effect is protesting a situation for which they were responsible. Their action brought most of this about. Their action...made sure that those people in the revolution who had a more tolerant, more open, more enlightened view of where Iran should go were driven out. Those were the people who were ground under (forced out) thanks to their action. And now they are protesting the situation that they contributed to."

Limbert continues:

"The effects of [the hostage taking] have been much more on their own society. Our country has moved on. For us, this issue is the past, it is something that happened, it certainly had its effect -- but I think the effects in Iran were much deeper and much more harmful."

Limbert says he is hopeful that the United States and Iran will work their way out of what he calls the downward spiral of mutual recriminations that characterized their relationship over most of the last two decades. He sees some positive signs in what he calls a gradual diminishing of hostile rhetoric. But he says for real progress to be made, the two sides will eventually have to get together and talk over what happened between them.

"We and the Iranians got onto a downward spiral where every action that we took, [and] every action that they took ... was given the most hostile interpretation. Everything the other side did had to be hostile ... and then justified, of course, a hostile response on the other side. If we are ever going to get out of that, all the old grievances, [in] some way we have to deal with them, we have to at least acknowledge them. We may be getting there, but I am not sure we are there yet."

Limbert personally wishes for the day when the people who took him hostage will take responsibility for their actions and acknowledge the damage they did -- both to the hostages' lives and to their own. And that, he says, could serve as a useful warning to radicals in any society -- that extreme actions bring extreme consequences and over time they may not want to live with them.