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Interview: Former U.S. Hostage Calls For Iran To Change

Bruce Laingen was the senior U.S. official held hostage during the Iran hostage crisis.
Bruce Laingen was the senior U.S. official held hostage during the Iran hostage crisis.
Thirty years ago, a group of Iranian students stormed into the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 U.S. diplomats and embassy staff hostage. They were held in Tehran for 444 days.

Bruce Laingen, who was the U.S. charge d'affaires at the time, was among them. But despite his painful experience, he says that the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran should find a basis for a new relationship.

Laingen spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari about his experience as a hostage and the current state of U.S.-Iran relations.

RFE/RL: What were your first thoughts and feelings when the students occupied the embassy on November 4, 1979?

Bruce Laingen:
Well, my first thoughts and feelings were shock, anger, surprise -- all of my human emotions at that time. I had hoped that would not happen.

We anticipated that something like that might happen -- as it did in February 1979 -- in the context of the revolution, but we had hoped and prayed that it would not be repeated. It was. And much longer this time, 444 days, instead of a few hours back in February 1979.

RFE/RL: How were you treated during those 444 days?

Laingen:
I was denied my freedom. It's as simple as that. For all of my colleagues -- 53 of them -- varying degrees of abuse; some were treated better than others. Most of my colleagues including myself were held in solitary confinement and that is an extreme physical abuse of human rights, but the treatment varied a great deal. It was never good in the sense that we were denied our fundamental right of freedom -- that is what matters, that magnificent word freedom.

RFE/RL: How did that experience mark your life and change you?

Laingen:
Obviously it changed my life at the moment. In the long run, the effect of that was to deepen my commitment to my country, to diplomacy, to my family, to my colleagues who were held with me.

It was an experience that was rare and unique at the time, a hostage experience is always unique. But fundamentally I retained a sense of disappointment that Iran would abuse its own tradition of hospitality for foreigners, and of course anger, at the time. I do not live it today.

Finding Shared Interests

RFE/RL: How do you feel about it when you look back?

Laingen:
When I look back I feel a sense of regret that 30 years later we have not yet found the basis for a relationship between the United States and Iran. That is deeply regrettable for both countries.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that we've had a beginning in the current context at Geneva with one contact. That has got to be expanded, we need to find a way to build in both countries -- and particularly both governments not least Iran's -- that we have so many shared interests -- the United States and Iran -- and we have to find a way to talk about those shared interests and what should normally, naturally in the real world bring us closer together.

RFE/RL: But some believe that the Islamic republic is not ready to talk to the United States. Today again Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lashed out at the United States and said that Washington cannot be trusted.

Laingen:
I'm sick and tired of that kind of language from Iran. We've had it ad nauseam for years. Iran has got to get over that and it ought to come from the leadership of that country. And I have no confidence that that's going to come very soon from the supreme leader, given what he is reported to have said today.

RFE/RL: Many Iranians have told us that they favor good ties with the United States and many have also said that the hostage taking was a mistake. Have you ever heard any word of regret or apology from any of the former hostage takers, have any of them ever tried to contact you?

Laingen:
Countless Iranian private citizens have said that kind of thing to me, not only a large number of Iranian-Americans who live now in the United States, making us the second-largest Persian-speaking country in the world. I heard that expression of regret from those people, people like that, often, but I have not heard it from the leadership of Iran.

RFE/RL: Many of the former student hostage takers have come under pressure and they have turned into critics of the establishment in Iran. One of them, Mohsen Mirdamadi, is currently in jail and is reportedly facing some of the conditions you faced, including being held in solitary confinement. How does it make you feel?

Laingen:
Well, I hesitate to say that they deserved it, they earned it, but in many ways they did. If they now express regret, I can only welcome it and I can add my view that holding the hostages in prison for their political views is wrong on every count and it ought to end, and in this situation those who are held today ought to be released.

Not least other Americans who are currently being held. There are three hikers, simple men and women who were hiking near a border, now held in confinement for many months and my question is why? What does Iran gain by the holding of those people and what does Iran gain today by imprisoning those who led the fight in the revolution back in 1979?

It ought to end, this kind of activity on the part of the government of Iran today is wrong, it was wrong then on every count -- taking human beings for political purposes, which is what they did with us, to further the concept of the revolution in 1979. But it isn't right, it is wrong legally, politically, culturally, historically, morally -- it's an abuse of Iran's own rich tradition of human rights and hospitality.
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by: BiBiJon from: USA
November 03, 2009 20:23
To fully appreciate the extent of ignominy of taking over the American embassy and holding the staff for 444 days, that indelible shame that early revolutionary zeal bestowed to Iran, it is instructive to consider the historical record.

In the Public orations of Demosthenes (384-322 BCE), there are references to Aphobetus, ambassador to the King of Persia. Considering the relative size and power of the Persian empire vs that of Greece, it is fair to assume that it was an Iranian invention to respect the sanctity of an embassy and the diplomatic immunity of an ambassador.

There could not have been a more savage act, an un-Iranian act, than defiling a concept invented by Iranians themselves.

While 27 years of the reign of the US 'friend', the Shah, one of the most brutal dictatorships in modern times may be used by some to justify idiotic acts of excess, 30 years hence is high time for Iranians to hang their heads low and apologize.

http://www.bibijon.org/iranimage/

by: irani from: phoenix, arizona
November 03, 2009 22:25
I think Mr. Laingen ought to also mention why the event happened and not just talk about how bad it was or is. I don't agree with a lot of things that the Iranian government does but I can appreciate their apprehension about trusting the Western governments in general and the U.S. one's in particular. The U.S. administration talks about negotiations with Iran while at the same time seeks more punishing sanctions against Iran. To me, it doesn't make any sense. The Western world continues to ignore Israel's nuclear arsenal while Israel as an occupying nation inflicts tremendous amount of suffering and destruction on innocent Palestinians and other Arabs on a daily basis, and yet they pick on Iran which has no known nuclear weapon's program and does not occupy any other nation. Is this not a double standard? Should Iran trust the West? Be honest!

by: Arash Sharriar from: Sweden
November 04, 2009 17:13
It amazes me that no one cares about what these so called diplomats where doing at that building. People that keep calling them diplomats are distorting the truth, and history it self. They where planning to make a coup orchestrated by CIA. Now isn't that the definition of an agent? A spy? Is that allowed by international law? Should Iran had just expelled them and raised there finger at UN? Now that would be stupid!

Besides people are now talking about 3 "hikers" that are being held back by Iran. Now lets assumes that they where Mexicans or Iranians at the border of Mexico and US. The chances of them being shot or if they where Iranians transferred to Guantanamo or Uzbekistan would be really high! That is an assumption, the real deal happened in Iraq for 2-3 years ago. When the Iranian council was attacked by US. troops, and they took the DIPLOMATS as captive. I say diplomats, cause no EVIDENCE is been shown that they were doing anything wrong, in contrary to US. "diplomats" for 30 years ago.

Last point is you have to ask your self, is this not a good opportunity to free some of those diplomats in exchange to 3 "hikers"?? Like they did last time some British marines were trespassing Iranian waters? Now stop whining and start telling us the truth!

by: eb from: Seattle
November 04, 2009 18:35
Laingren could have mentioned how the US precipitated Iranian outrage by giving sanctuary inside the USA to the Shah. A provocative, insensitive, and ignorant US move if ever there was one. It turned Laingren and the others into sitting ducks and foreclosed any chance of building trust and constructive relations with the new Iranian government.

And then the US supported Iraq when it attacked Iran, condoning the use of Iraqi chemical weapons against Iran.

From the 1953 overthrow of the secular and democratically-elected Mossadeqh by the CIA on behalf of Western oil interests, who installed the Shah, to the Bush administration's call for "regime change" funded by the US Congresss, to current-day threats against Iran's non-extistent nuclear weapons program, and US-led efforts to screw Iran's economy any way it can - ... and Bruce Laingren thinks it is the Iranians who should apologize?

He .. and we .. should know better.

by: Anonymous
November 04, 2009 19:30
excellent interview.

by: secret slave from: usa
November 04, 2009 22:13
salaam,
USA did not take hostages in flight IR655 they only took innocent civilian lives.
feeamanellaah

by: Wal from: Portland, USA
November 06, 2009 00:46
To:
by: secret slave from: usa

The United States paid $61.8 million in compensation to the Iranian government in 1996 for that airliner. Also, you might ask why the government of Iran was flying civilian airliners into war zones? But, that might mess up your simple narrative. Here is the reference for you: http://www.merinews.com/article/the-politics-of-iran-usa-relations/123291.shtml

by: Arash Sharriar from: Sweden
November 06, 2009 09:43
To Wal from Portlan, USA

You are distorting the truth. The airliner was INSIDE Iranian airspace and was well within a recognised international air corridor. And for your knowledge the Americans gave the sailors who shot down the airliner medals. Besides the compensation which dose not compensate human lives, no apologies or regret have been made. You can read further on:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Air_Flight_655
Please dont made lame excuses or in anyway make light of the incident, cause it cant be!

- Arash

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