Changes in Iran, through the eyes of a hostage taker

Iranians celebrate 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, butmany have moderated their views.

Taking American diplomats hostage in Iran during the Islamic revolution 20 years ago was all part of the zealotry of the time for Abbas Abdi: After decades of American "meddling," humiliation of the United States was a top priority.

As one of three leaders of the "Students Following the Line of Imam," Mr. Abdi had his dream realized when his cabal of hard-liners organized the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, known then as the "den of spies."

To chants of "Death to America" on Nov. 4, 1979, US Marine guards were overwhelmed, diplomats were taken into custody, and the American flag was burned on the rooftop.

"We have control," Abdi recalls announcing to the world. The echo of that statement traumatized a superpower - as 52 American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days - and poisoned Iran-US ties for two decades.

But this week, as Iranians celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the overthrow of the American-backed Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, Abdi says he is "older and wiser." The sea change in his own political thinking - from extremist revolutionary to moderate with tolerant views - mirrors those throughout Iran.

"Everything has changed," says Abdi, who is now an editor of the moderate Salam newspaper. "The world has changed, our regime has changed, our social environment has changed.... For sure I changed too."

Tension with the US is often traced back to a 1953 coup orchestrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which helped overthrow a short-lived elected government and snuffed out budding democracy in Iran.

Though almost no CIA documents about this operation are known to still exist, it is commonly accepted that the US then installed the shah and trained his notoriously brutal SAVAK internal security forces.

Press freedom and dissent were unheard of, and - in an effort to "Westernize" - religious expression was restricted.

The coup "created a deep hatred among Iranians for the US," says Ibrahim Yazdi, the first foreign minister of the revolution.

Ideological fervor

Iranians overthrew the shah in February 1979, and in those heady days, street violence mixed with ideological fervor. Freedom from the shah's repressive rule, independence from Western domination, and an Islamic regime served as the three pillars of the revolution.

Then, when the US accepted the exiled shah for medical treatment in the US in October 1979, the die was cast for the embassy takeover.

But today, a new strategic dynamic is bringing the two enemies closer together. Can Iran afford to remain isolated from the world's one remaining superpower? And can the US continue to ignore Iran's strategic role as an emerging regional power that sits at the energy and geographic crossroads of Central Asia?

As a result, Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami and American officials have dabbled with dtente, and enthusiasm for flag-burning is at an all-time low.

Mr. Khatami first offered the olive branch a year ago. He stopped short of making an apology for the embassy takeover but expressed "regret" for the pain that the hostage saga caused Americans.

For Abdi, these moves reflect a mellowing change that has taken the edge off the uncompromising events of 1979. "That hard feeling and very hard position is now disappeared," he says. "We [students] were not thinking of the aftermath.... Although it's a lesson we will always remember, it is as a lesson only, without the hard feelings."

Views began to harden with the embassy takeover, when hard-liners hijacked the revolution, says Mr. Yazdi, a relative liberal who resigned over the affair and now heads the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran. Taking the hostages "pushed aside moderate elements and concentrated power in [extremist] hands," he says.

Other issues furthered hardened attitudes: internal upheaval, violent threats to the new regime from its opponents, and strictly enforced Islamic social demands.

And despite hopes of total freedom kindled by the revolution, a new type of repression and control emerged that reminded some of the shah's era.

"People ask: 'In some sense, isn't that [shah's repression] what we're having now?' " says Sadiq Sibaqalam, a political historian at the University of Tehran. "So we explain that Rome wasn't built in a day."

Iranians were further disillusioned by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which exacerbated divisions between believers in the revolution and nonbelievers.

By 1997, Iranians had sent a powerful message to the conservative clerical establishment that most wanted faster social and political changes: They overwhelmingly elected reform-minded Khatami - a sign that shows to many how the revolution has matured politically.

Hostage captor meets captive

In yet another sign of changing attitudes, hostage captor met captive last July at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Abdi took part in the public meeting with former US hostage and embassy press attach Barry Rosen, at a gathering organized by the Center for World Dialogue based in Nicosia, Cyprus.

Abdi apologized to Mr. Rosen's family for their suffering but said - as he told the Monitor - that he did not regret his actions.

The takeover was meant to last 10 days at most, he says, and its initial purpose was to force the US to deport the shah back to Iran. "We thought we were doing something good," he says.

Such revolutionary beliefs had surprised foreigners at the time, whose close ties with the Western-oriented elite overlooked the conservative majority. "It's dangerous for Western people to see Iran through the people who are close to us," says a Western diplomat. "They are the minority."

Before there can be dtente, Abdi says, the US must apologize for imposing a quarter century of the shah's rule on Iran. How can the former hostage-taker imagine a similar turnaround in his thinking - to accepting dtente?

Part of the reason may be that in two decades, "you don't see so many changes in your country, but I have seen many, many changes in 20 years in my country," Abdi says. "I don't think we should reach the conclusion that what we do today is right, or what we did in the past was wrong."

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