Lessons from the HOSTAGES
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.
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."
The country still had no road system in many of even its larger cities. Ports were inadequate. Agriculture was lagging behind population growth.
"Without those basic components, the distortions that appeared in Iran's development by the late '70s could have been predicted. But we in America had accepted almost without question that Shah's press releases to the contrary."
And then there was Islam.
"We also had not been sufficiently aware of the political power of Islam in the intense national and popular feelings behind the revolution, and against which the Shah's military would prove powerless," reflects Bruce Laingen. In fact, adds Vic Tomseth, the US tended to listen only to the regime's version of the diminishing influence of the clergy in Iranian society.
Was the American government being deliberatelym deceived by the Shah?
"One man's deception is another man's real-politik," reflects the sandy-haired political analyst. "We had allowed the Shah's regime, particularly during the '70s, to increasingly assert itself. The Shah did have predilection toward the West, but that didn't prevent him from projecting the image he wanted and from entering into arrangements unfavorable to America's interests. That's what we lost sight of in Iran."
Despite the clergy-led ouster of the Shah and its anti- American rhetoric, the US government would still decide that US interests required a continued diplomatic presence in Iran, continued effort to rebuild a political relationship, and support for Iran's territorial integrity.
"It was a policy judgment I supported," recalls Bruce Laingen, "along the lines of what Palmerston [British statesman, 1848] once said, that Britain has no permanent enemies or friends: it has permanent interests."m
But was it reasonable to expect friendly relations so soonm after the revolution?
There were hopeful signs, he says, even during the tense months after the Shah's fall when provisional governments were trying out their wobbly legs. The US was encouraged by the attitude of the provisional government, by improving security, and when Mr. Laingen first met with that government over the summer he found a readiness to talk about rebuilding US-Iranian relations.
Still, there remained a vital missing link -- what he calls the "grossly inadequate contact with the clerical forces."
"We had not seen Khomeini, and his senior aides were reluctant to speak with us until we had seen him. I think he did not want to speak to us until we had an ambassador."
Iran had rejected the appointment of Walter Cutler as US ambassador, largely because of a Senate resolution condemning the wholesale public executions that were being carried out by revolutionary courts in May. It was then that the decision was made to send in a subambassadorial charge d'affaires,m and Mr. Laingen got the job.
By September the atmosphere seemed friendlier. Security inside the embassy had improved. The Iranians themselves had beefed up police protection outside. The US consulate was opened and started issuing visas.
But as so often is the case with "things Iranian," surface appearances proved deceptive.
"We recognized all along," Mr. Laingen recalls, "that whatever security assurances we could get from the government of Iran were limited -- in the sense that it would be difficult to defend the embassy compound against a determined mob."
That recognition hit the embassy staff full force in October when they received word that Washington was considering admitting the Shah to New York for medical treatment. Worried that that could undermine the US position in Iran, perhaps touching off angry demonstrations, the embassy cabled strong warnings to WAshington.
"All of us were apprehensive, although the degree of apprehension varied," recalls Mr. Laingen.
"It had been very strong earlier in the year [when the Shah wanted to enter the US] shortly after the revolution. To be sure, by October, you had a somewhat different situation since security had been improved. Also the Shah's entrance was now being considered for humanitarian reasons.
"We at the embassy had stated ad mauseumm to the Iranians our intention not to interfere [with politics inside Iran]. And we had some evidence that the Iranians wanted to sand by their assurances during demonstrations scheduled for Nov. 1: plans to have a huge [march by] the embassy were called off on government orders and the relatively few demonstrators who did come were kept in check by expanded police forces.
"We also had some evidence [of the intentions of] clerical forces, because they were the ones, we assume, who took action to call off the demonstrations."
When Washington's decision to admit the Shah was conveyed to the Iranians and a request made for extra security for the embassy, the Bazargan government's promise of protection was not nearly as firm as has sometimes been reported, recalls Mr. Tomseth.
"The Bazargan government," he says with a rather chilling irony, "said in effect, 'We'll do our best.'''
Obviously that "best" wasn't good enough.
The memory of it all seems particularly ironic to John Limbert. Months after the embassy takeover, while he was in solitary confinement, he had been brought an old copy of Newsweek magazine dated June 1979. All those months before it reported that the Carter administration told the Shah he would be welcome to enter the US, though not immediately. And to Limbert's astonishment, the magazine then quoted an unnamed Americans official as saying, "How would you like it if the US mission in Tehran were taken hostage and held in return for the Shah?"
Recalls Mr. Limbert, "When I read that I scratched my head a little bit. Apparently somebody,m at least, didn't under- estimate this possibility. In fact , somebody called it exactlym ."
Nevertheless, in retrospect the returned Americans do not see the Shah's admission itself as the prime reason for the embassy takeover.
"It did, of course, service as a necessary precondition for the embassy takeover," says Vic Tomseth. "But in my view the thing that sparked the takeover was the meeting in Algiers several days before between [President Carter's national security advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Iranian Foreign Minister Yazdi and [Iranian] Prime Minister Bazargan.
"It was when that meeting got considerable publicity in Tehran that the students decided to take the embassy, although admission of the Shah gave them the pretext to do it."
Indeed, on the morning of the takeover a vitriolic editorial was published in a right-wing Iranian newspaper attacking Prime Minister Bazargan for the incident. The meeting angered Iran's radical student leaders more than the Shah's admission itself, explains Bruce Laingen, because it looked as if Iran was returning to the same old political relationship with the United States.
Even if the Shah had been denied entry into the US, that would not have prevented the students from seizing the embassy under some other pretext.
John Limbert often questioned his militant student guards about this.
"They said that frankly it could have happened over something else. I concluded from talking to them that their stated purpose of getting back the Shah was not their main purpose. They didn't seem to care that much about the Shah."
If Americans have been baffled and angered at the erratic behavior of the militant students -- not a few of them educated in the US -- John Limbert and Vic Tomseth got an inside view of what was going on.
"They were suspicious of anybodym who seemed to know too much or be too interested in their culture," says Mr. Limbert, whose longtime interested in Iranian culture instantly brought him under suspicion of being a spy. "There are reasons for this, not least the long tradition, especially among British Orientalists, of having exploitative ties to Iran. To the students, that kind of thing was more dangerous than even the out-and-out supporters of the Shah's regime."
When the US agreed to sell Iran a million barrels of kerosene in the late summer of 1979, the US saw it as a way to express support for the new Iranian social order.
Not so for the students.
"These kids saw it as a threat. Their interest lay in spoiling the development of anything that worked toward sympathy or understanding between the US and the revolutionary regime or the provisional government."
But how to explain the attitude of young Iranians educated in the United States who might be expected to be sympathetic toward the US? For Vic Tomseth, the sheer newsness of education in Iran is a large part of the answer.
Less than 50 percent of the Iranian population is literate, he says. And much of that literacy is only one generation deep -- a fact that opened the way for radicalism.
"When you take a young person who is among the first generation of his family to read and write, out of a very traditional background and throw him into an American university, the cultural shock he experiences is a radical one indeed. Much of the radicalism we experienced during and after the revolution can be explained in terms of this thinness of Iran's own culture of literacy. It was wrong for us to assume that the more Iranians we could get educated in AMerican colleges, the greater would be our credit within Iranian society at large."
Despite their anti-American feelings, however, many of the students were apparently preoccupied with Americans' opinion of them, recalls John Limbert.
"Even while they seemed to enjoy the role of international bad guys -- you know, of going against the United Nations, telling off the Pope's emissary, rejecting every effort at mediation -- at the same time they seemed deeply concerned with their international image.
"It sounds funny now but they would come in often and say things like, 'Why don't you like us?' They followed the American press very closely and what the hostages' families might be saying."
Behind that concern, senses Mr. Limbert, lies a combination of Muslim idealism and an "incredible naivete about the United States."
They actually expected some kind of Islamic revolution to occur in the US. Some had even studied in the US, but they didn't have much understanding of how our system works. I tried to explain to them that we have large communities of Muslims in the States -- Palestinians, Syrians, Yemenites, and so on -- who have been living there a long time and enjoy freedom of religion; and that the students' action in holding hostages could be alienating the very Americans who might be sympathetic with their grievances.
"The reaction was disbelief and amazement. They expected popular pressure would mount in the US for the government to return the Shah."
What, finally, made the difference in bringing the ordeal to an end?
A process had to run its course within Iran itself, in the eyes of these US diplomats -- a process whose main aims must be sifted out from the ordeal's abundant array of rhetorical red herrings.
For one thing, Mr. Laingen is far from convinced that Iranians' desire for a public airing of their grievances against the Shah and the US was all that important to them.
"This business of saying that all the Iranians were interested in was truth about the past is a gross oversimplification. They were determined to use the hostage situation for stabilizing their internal political position, unifying around a common enemy, and in the international perspective, they had a certain ideological compulsion to denounce and humiliate the 'Great Satan' [the US]."
"As early as late November  we publicly recognized that Iran had grievances, that we would consider them in any appropriate forum or in an international commission of inquiry. We demonstrated that in sending Ramsey Clark.
"But I don't think they were interested in a settlement at that point. Even in June of 1980, when some in the Bani-Sadr camp staged the Crimes of America Conference, it was clear to us shortly thereafter that those with realm power in the clerical community weren't interested in that.
"In the end they were interested in saving themselves from the political excesses within their own country and getting their money back."
Vic Tomseth agrees that from the Iranians' point of view, a quick settlement was never in the cards. Before all the political factions could consider ending the crisis, he says, they had to learn just how much the crisis was costing them.
"Only as the summer wore on did it become broadly apparent that prolongation was costing Iran more than anyone else."
Mr. Laingen now concludes that, in the final analysis, the release was achieved through the international sanctions that isolated iran politically, economically, and diplomatically; and the war with Iraq.
What should we learn from it all? That is now the crucial task for Americans , according to the diplomats who lived through the hostage crisis.
The US is constantly having to deal with developing countries where conditions are much like Iran under the Shah -- dictator-dominated and stirring with revolutionary impulses. How should the US deal with repression in other countries? Or with countries rife with discontent? Or with religious values foreign to the West?
President Reagan has threatened swift retribution if another US embassy is attacked. Just what form the retribution would take has been left vague so that terrorists would not know what to expect.
Bruce Laingen, for his part, is quick to applaud that general position, saying that terrorists, as well as governments that stand behind them, must be convinced that attacks on diplomats will not go unopposed by the world community.
Yet deciding on the "right retribution" for an actual attack situation is a highly delicate business. With no tanks or armies of their own, diplomats abroad are -- almost by definition -- already hostages of the host nations, dependent on them for their basic protection. Even if military protection were offered, it would be no mean feat to defend an embassy compound the size of the one in the heart of Tehran -- 27 acres -- against an angry mob.
Nevertheless the American diplomats back from Iran feel that there are ways the US Can strengthen its diplomacy in developing countries. They feel that their experience in Iran has furnished clues -- but only clues at this stage -- as to how this can be done.
* Diplomats might be better protected if the governments of the world's governments automatically agreed to impose economic sanctions on any country that condoned terrorist action.
This idea, which was discussed last year in the United Nations, may come up again this year, although few nations are willing to commit themselves in advance to such sanctions.
Still, says Mr. Laingen, "I am convinced that the international sanctions turned this crisis around, and that if they had been brought to bear earlier, the crisis could have been ended sooner. It took six months for many of the Europeans to get sanctions going. If you had multilateral agreement, you wouldn't have the burden that now rests upon a great power to use its power unilaterally."
* Although terrorists and government sympathetic to them must know that world governments will act immediately against unlawful acts directed at diplomats, the response in each case must be tailor-made. Shooting "from the hip" would unnecessarily risk lives.
What would work in one context, observes Mr. Laingen, could fail in, say,"an Iranian city half a world away where hundreds of thousands of people are teeming on the streets around your embassy. . . . In that atmosphere of extreme tension and sensitiveness, application of force could have had serious consequence."
"I have strong views myself that rescue attempts should only be attempted when all other options have been thoroughly considered. Based on what I know of the situation in mid-APril of 1980, it seems to me that we had not reached that point yet. There are limits to the exercise of power in such a revolutionary context."
Also, as was so evident with the Iran case, all governments cannot be assumed to adhere to accepted standards of international conduct, stresses Vic Tomseth. This is so even when commitments to abide by intertnational treaties have been made.
* If the US is too closely identified with authoritarian regimes, it also becomes indentified with the failure of those regimes or their abuses of human rights.
Realistically speaking, the US cannot avoid dealing with authoritarian regimes -- they make up most of the governments in the world today. but it is a serious question, says Vic Tomseth, whether the US will base its relations with dictatorial regimes strictly on mutual interests or will try to "make something out of these regimes that they're not" and risk being held responsible for the human rights abuses of those regimes.
"It did not, for example, serve our interests to portray the Shah's regime as something it was not. By making the Shah our friend rather than [considering him] another dictator like the others, we needlessly exposed ourselves to the kind of reaction we got from the Iranian people. We could have maintained mutually beneficial contracts and protected the US interest in Iranian oil without personalizing the relationship with the Shah's regime."
On the other hand, he believes, US relations with the Shah have been used as a scapegoat for abuses that were part and parcel of Iranian society itself, not a product of the Shah's regime or the responsibility of the US.
Adds Bruce Laingen, "We have learned from the Iranian experience that we did not give adequate consideration to popular demands and grievances about abuses under the Shah's secret police.
"But even there the numbers said to have been killed or tortured is vastly exaggerated in the context of revolutionary rhetoric and zeal. And you do have to recognize the considerable economic progress that filtered through the society under the Shah.
"Our government ought to be identified as much as possible with aspirations of people for more participation in their public life and economic development. But there are no hard and fast rules for us to apply to every country. It always has to be considered in the context of the interests we've got in any particular country."
* American diplomacy must be based on an understanding of the traditions and aspirations of foreign nations, not solely on images broadcast by the rulers.
"We tended to let the kind of society we wanted to see in Iran -- the pluralistic secular society projected by the Shah -- get in the way of our vision of the kind of society that really existed there, not wanting to look at what from our viewpoint was the darker side, the pervasiveness of Islam across the spectrum of social values. But we simply cannot affort to listen only to the ruling regime as our sole source of information," reflects Victor Tomseth.
The influence of religion on popular aspirations needs to be recognized, suggests Bruce Laingen. And even after the revolution, says John Limbert, the depth of popular feeling against the Shah's admission into the US was understimated.
"In the Iranian context it was a mistake not to recognize that this would not attract vast popular support, even bring mobs into the streets."
* A policy of continued revenge against an unfriendly country like Iran may not be in the American interest.
For one thing, the embassy seizure has proved so damaging to Iran that it may serve as one of the most effective deterrents to future terrorist attacks, say these diplomats.
"The result is probably far worse than anyone on the outside could have planned for that country," argues John Limbert. "Their economy is in ruin. They're pumping very little oil. Their industrial establishment is gone.They're under inflation and have high unemployment. Diplomatically they made enemies of everybody. What other revenge could anyone want to take? Rather than a cause for anger, it's a cause for sadness."
Despite all he and the other 52 American hostages endured, Bruce Laingen still believes Americans should try to support Iran's territorial integrity and independence. He came to "know and respect" Iranian culture during his stay there years ago and is left with no ill will toward the Iranian people as such, despite his anger with the acts of many individual Iranians.
"I hope very much that we can proceed as a government with broader considerations in mind. I welcome what the President has said about revenge not being worthy of us."