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Iran: Severing Relations Was Necessary, Says Former U.S. Hostage

Friday, April 7 marked 20th anniversary of the breaking of diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran. On this occassion, RFE/RL spoke with Bruce Laingen, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Tehran at the time of the rupture. The taking hostage of Laingen and other U.S. diplomats in Tehran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution led directly to the severing of relations.

Prague, 10 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Alireza Taheri asked Bruce Laingen whether now -- 20 years after the fact -- he believes the severing of relations was a good idea.

Laingen, now a former diplomat who lives in Washington, D.C., replied:

"Well, at the time I was being held hostage in the [Iranian] foreign ministry so nobody asked me but the [US] government had no other alternative at that point, it seemed to me. [U.S. President] Jimmy Carter had exhausted all of his options and obviously was very angry with the way in which he was failing to get any cooperation from the authorities in Tehran and I think that if I had been in Jimmy Carter's chair I would have done the same thing ... I think I would have done it much earlier because that left the Iranian embassy in Washington under a charge d'affaires free and open to do what they wanted to do in all those months I was held hostage as his counterpart in Tehran, which on the face of it, was clearly unfair."

Our correspondent asked Laingen how he evaluates any progress over the last two decades toward a return to normal relations between the two countries. Laingen replied:

"I would think the pluses would be a little more than the negatives. I am an optimist by nature, I am still an optimist about the future of our relations with Iran. This must change. A relationship must be established eventually but preceded, obviously, by dialogue, by conversation, by talking. As a diplomat I am always prejudiced in the direction of talking. I believe times and trends are right in Tehran toward a more open society, toward a clear recognition that a relationship with the United States would also be to the advantage of Iran."

Our correspondent asked Laingen how he responds to critics in Iran who say the United States speaks with contradictory voices about its Iran policy and may lack the will to work toward better ties. Laingen replied:

"We are an open society, we are a free country, where everyone is free to express his opinion and that is true within government as well, because we have contending elements in the executive and legislative branches. There is much more reluctance to go very far out on any branch vis-a-vis Iran in the Congress, not least because of the peace process between the Arabs and Israelis and Palestinians and Tehran's position on that. [On the other hand,] I think [U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright has not been given the credit she deserves for that speech she gave a week or two ago. She made some very interesting statements, not least some recognitions which Iran has been seeking as far as our regret about certain elements of our past [relations], not least the [1953 U.S.-supported overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed] Mosaddegh issue, the Iran-Iraq war and the Iranian perception that we were tilting toward Iraq, which of course we were, and our record of support for what she described as oppressive policies on the part of the Shah. I think those were very interesting and very considerable gestures in, granted, a psychological, emotional, and political sense, but they matter, too, in a dialogue."

Our correspondent asked how Laingen evaluates the response to the U.S. overture from the Iranian side. Laingen replied:

"I have not seen much beyond a negative reaction. I have seen some indications in the [Iranian] media of recognition but as far as [Iran's] Supreme Leader is concerned, I heard words like deceitful, bullying [and other] very unfortunate language that does not contribute to what is called a dialogue of civilizations."