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.