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Lessons from the HOSTAGES

By Richard M. HarleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 1981

Bethesda, Maryland

Of all the hostages held in Iran, three had a unique vantage on what happened. Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth, and John Limbert were senior US diplomats in Iran and, like grandmaster chess players watching a match at close range, could appreciate the moves on both sides that triggered and prolonged the 14- month ordeal.

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Now that the cheering and excitement has died down, they are just beginning to reveal what they saw from the inside.

In separate conversations they explained how, even before the US Embassy was seized, they were waging delicate lion's den diplomacy in a country still reeling from revolution; how the sunny picture of Iran painted by the Shah never really existed, leaving Americans dangerously ignorant of the deadly discontent pervading that land; how misunderstood was the motivation of the militant students who defied their government and refused to let their American captives go. Not least, what it all means for the future of US diplomacy in troubled lands.

Ironically the three had been assigned to the US Embassy just months before its takeover -- Tomseth in February, Laingen in June, Limbert in August. They arrived in Tehran carrying a portfolio of reconciliation, acknowledging the outcome of the Iranian revolution and hoping to build new bridges between Iran and the United States.

Bruce Laingen, the ranking diplomat at the embassy, and Victor Tomseth, who headed up its political section, were seized while visiting the Iranian Foreign Ministry and held there for most of the 14 months. They weren't cut off from the world -- they had telephone and telex communications, TV, and radio during much of their captivity. Nor did they suffer the physical abuses reported by many of their colleagues.

John Limbert, on the other hand, was held in solitary confinement for nine of the 14 months. It was incomprehensible to his student-captors that the dry-witted, 37-year-old scholar of Middle East history -- who had lived in Iran some years before, was married to an Iranian, and spoke fluent Persian -- could be anything but a spy.

He was held in the US Embassy from its seizure on Nov. 4, 1979, until the abortive rescue attempt of April 25, 1980, then moved to central Iran, then back to several prisons in Tehran, and finally to what he thinks was the Foreign Ministry club.

"I thought from the beginning that all of us would be released unharmed," says the soft-spoken, articulate Bruce Laingen, sitting by a fireplace in his suburban Maryland home. "but if I had known of the abuses my colleagues suffered, I think I wouldn't have been so confident. Not that I ever felt the Iranians would deliberately kill or brutalize, but the risk of accident was great -- far greater than I appreciated."

Victor Tomseth had the broadest perspective on events leading up to the crisis, having worked at the US consulate in Shiraz from 1976 until he joined the embassy staff in Tehran in 1979.

When he first arrived in Iran, he was astonished at the gap between the way America perceived the country and the reality. The American press he had been reading in Washington was preoccupied with the Shah's abuses of human rights.

On the one hand, those abuses neededm greater exposure, Vic Tomseth pointed out from his McLean, Va., home where he was reached by telephone. In fact, he recalls what a "palpable" sigh of relief went up among the Iranian people when Jimmy Carter announced in 1976 that American foreign policy would be aimed at easing human rights abuses abroad.

But the West was even more in the dark about the delicate state of Iran's precarious economic and social development.

The Shah was boasting that investments in steel mills, copper mines, nuclear power, and military hardware would turn his country into the fifth leading industrialized power outside the communist bloc by the end of the century -- a claim widely accepted by the American government and press.

"But when I got there it was quickly apparent that that simply couldn't be. Iran wasn't a West Germany. It wasn't a Taiwan, and wasn't even going to be by the turn of the century."