INTERVIEW Ex-hostage 'sick and tired' of rhetoric
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Thirty years ago, a group of Iranian students stormed into the United States
Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 US diplomats and embassy staff hostage.
They were held in Tehran for 444 days.
Bruce Laingen, who was the US 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 US-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
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?
BL: 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?
BL: 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.
RFE/RL: How do you feel about it when you look back?
BL: 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
BL: 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
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?
BL: 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 [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?
BL: 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.