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Two Former Hostages Call For More Diplomacy With Iran

Ambassador John W. Limbert said the U.S. and Iran must break through “a wall of mistrust.”
[AAAS/Carla Schaffer]


The United States and Iran need to find new common ground and work toward developing a talking relationship if there is any hope of finding a compromise on nuclear issues, said two ambassadors and former hostages of Iran at a recent AAAS event.

“It’s just plain stupid on all counts that the United States and Iran do not have a talking relationship. It makes no sense on the face of it, given the range of interests that we share in that critical part of the world. We should be talking about them,” said Ambassador L. Bruce Laingen, who headed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 as the chargé d’affaires.

Laingen and Ambassador John W. Limbert spoke on 21 May at an event titled “Future U.S.-Iran Trajectories Through the Lens of Former Hostages,” which was moderated by Norman Neureiter, the senior advisor to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

The center has been working to build bridges between the United States and Iran. Last year, for instance, a small delegation led by former AAAS president Peter Agre and including Neureiter visited Tehran and met with government officials, scholars and students. The recent event at AAAS builds on that work by shedding light on a key event in the history of the two countries. Neureiter said that it was important to hear from the two former hostages because he felt that the United States had developed a “fixed view of Iran” that came in large part from the 1979 crisis.

That crisis began on 4 November 1979, when a group of Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran and captured 63 Americans who were working there. (Six diplomats escaped, an event that was dramatized in the recent movie Argo.) Fifty-two of those Americans, including Limbert, were held as hostages for 444 days. Laingen and two other diplomats, who were across the city at the Foreign Ministry on the day of the embassy attack, were held there until three weeks before the end of the crisis when they were moved to join the others.

Tensions in Tehran had begun well before the hostage taking, in the summer of 1979, said Limbert. By that point, “it was pretty clear things were not going in a good way,” he said. Then the American government admitted the deposed Shah of Iran into the country for medical treatment. “It was throwing a match on a pile of gasoline,” Limbert said.

On the morning of 4 November, hundreds of Iranian students mobbed the gates of the American Embassy, easily overwhelming the Marine guards stationed there. The guards were not there to defend the embassy compound, Limbert noted. That was the job of the host country, but it quickly became “very clear that no help was forthcoming from those who were responsible,” he said. Within a few hours, the takeover of the embassy was complete and the Americans were in the hands of the Iranian students.

Laingen, who had been at a meeting at the Foreign Ministry that morning, tried to arrange for help from that branch of the Iranian government. By the end of the next day, however, the Foreign Minister was out of a job and no one in the ministry could help. The provisional government had fallen and the Americans were left to the students and activists that had occupied the embassy. Laingen and two colleagues were held at the Foreign Ministry.

Over the next months, the hostages would endure difficult conditions, including being held in solitary confinement, having guns held to their heads and even enduring a mock execution. But while there are individuals for whom Laingen and Limbert still hold animosity, they both hold hope that normal relations between the United States and Iran could one day be reestablished.

As the Americans were getting on the plane to escape Iran in January 1981, Laingen said to one of the hostage takers, “I look forward to the day when your country and mine can again have a normal diplomatic relationship,” he told the audience at AAAS. “I said it at that time, and I meant it.”

Limbert echoed those sentiments, saying that at the end of the crisis he had thought that the two countries would redevelop a talking relationship in five to ten years. “We talk to a lot of countries with which we are not friendly,” he said. “It’s very unusual that we have had an estrangement that’s lasted 34 years.” The U.S. government, he noted, has had more normal relations over the years with China, Cuba and North Korea, and has even talked to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Both ambassadors have worked in the years since the crisis to create a dialogue between the two countries. But Limbert said that he is not positive about current negotiations that are centered on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those negotiations have only dealt with nuclear issues, and “both sides have painted themselves into a rhetorical corner,” he noted. “What one side wants [as concessions], the other side cannot give. And so, if all we talk about with the Iranians are nuclear issues, we’re going to fail.”

Discussions should be expanded beyond nuclear issues into other areas where there is more common ground, the ambassadors said. “We’ve got to find other areas—maybe it’s Afghanistan, maybe it’s narcotics—where you can get to the point where if you say ‘yes’ to something, you realize the sky’s not falling,” said Limbert.

Laingen, Limbert and others have been working for decades to find that common ground and get the two nations talking. And they still hold out hope that areas for agreement can be found. “Because, after all, if we and the Iranians could never agree on anything,” Limbert said, “then Ambassador Laingen and I would still be in Tehran.”


Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

Read about a AAAS delegation visit to Tehran.