News / Middle East

Column: Can We Ever Move on from the Hostage Crisis?

In this photo released by the official website of the Iranian Presidency office on Thursday, March 20, 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, in Tehran, Iran
In this photo released by the official website of the Iranian Presidency office on Thursday, March 20, 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, in Tehran, Iran
After several weeks of consideration, the Barack Obama administration has expressed reservations to Iran about the tentative choice of a middle-aged career diplomat and close associate of President Hassan Rouhani as the country’s next ambassador to the U.N.
 
Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a former Iranian ambassador to Australia, Belgium and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, has acknowledged to Iranian media in interviews that on occasion, he served as a translator for the radical students who held 52 Americans hostage in Tehran from 1979-81.
 
Aboutalebi was not among the leaders of the takeover, which began as a protest after President Jimmy Carter admitted the ousted Shah of Iran to the U.S. for medical treatment. Many Iranians who supported the 1978-79 revolution against the shah worried that the United States would try to reinstall him on the throne as it did in 1953, when the CIA helped engineer the downfall of an elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. They did not believe that the Shah was ill – as it turned out, terminally – with cancer.
 
The students who led the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran intended the protest to last for only for a day or two. But the seizure aroused so much popular support at the time that the country’s leader – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – decided to prolong it and used the crisis to weed out remaining pro-Western elements in his government. The U.S. inability to secure freedom for the hostages for 444 days was also a major factor in President Jimmy Carter’s failure to win election to a second term.
 
In one of history’s delicious ironies, many of those who were prominent in the takeover went on to become members of Iran’s reform movement and have sought better relations with the United States.
 
One of the most well-known hostage holders, Abbas Abdi, went to Paris in 1998 and had dinner with Barry Rosen, the U.S. embassy press officer during the crisis. Abdi "privately apologized for what he had done to myself and my family," Rosen told me some years ago when I was researching a book on U.S.-Iran relations.
 
Abdi, who I met in Tehran in 1999, was beaten by hard-line vigilantes when he returned from the meeting with Rosen and later jailed after conducting a poll that showed that most Iranians wanted diplomatic ties with the United States. Describing his political evolution, Abdi told me: "If a person does not make changes as he ages, he must be a piece of wood. ... In the days of the revolution, we were shouting and screaming for liberty, but we did not know what it meant."
 
Others who became notorious during in the takeover -- such as Massoumeh Ebtekar, whom the hostages dubbed "Sister Mary" when she acted as a spokeswoman for the hostage holders with Western media – have gone on to important jobs in the Iranian government. Ebtekar is vice president of Iran for the environment – a post she also held under the Khatami administration.
 
Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, an engineering student who came up with the idea of seizing the embassy to begin with, also turned reformer and served in the Iranian parliament and on Tehran’s city council.  Contrary to some press reports, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opposed seizing the US embassy and wanted to occupy the Soviet one instead.
 
The Iranian government has never formally apologized for the takeover, although then President Mohammad Khatami, in an interview with CNN shortly after his 1997 election, expressed regret that the feelings of the American people had been hurt.
 
Former U.S. hostages have mixed emotions about their ordeal, with some seeking financial compensation or at least an acknowledgement from Iran’s current leaders that the takeover violated the most basic diplomatic norms.
 
John Limbert, one of the former hostages, told VOA that it was a mistake for the Iranians to even consider sending Aboutalebi to New York given his connection, however peripheral, to the embassy takeover. "This one’s got me scratching my head," Limbert said.
 
Noting that the U.S. once sent former CIA head Richard Helms to Iran while the shah was still in power, Limbert added, "We live in a world of symbolism. They symbolism of that [sending Helms] was terrible [given the CIA role in the 1953 coup] and the symbolism of this [Aboutalebi] is also terrible."
 
But rejecting Aboutalebi also seems like pandering to those – unlike Limbert -- who have no desire for US-Iran reconciliation and indeed, would like to sabotage current negotiations.
 
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) immediately jumped on the story and introduced a bill this week barring "known terrorists" from serving as envoys in the United States.
 
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) concurred that U.S. law should be changed to bar Aboutalebi, even though his post would be in New York, not Washington.
 
Given the delicate state of nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, one might argue that even suggesting someone with Aboutalebi’s background is an unnecessary distraction. One of the Iranian U.N. ambassador’s most important roles is to meet a wide range of Americans from civil society and politics and it might be hard for him to fulfill this function while subjected to a constant barrage of accusations about his past. On the other hand, Aboutalebi is said to be extremely close to Rouhani and so could be an authoritative interlocutor with Americans at a crucial moment in history. And rejecting him is likely to give ammunition to Rouhani’s anti-U.S. domestic opposition.
 
The kerfuffle also raises the question of when it will be time to move on from mutual recriminations. Iran has plenty of grievances against the U.S. beyond the coup against Mossadegh, including U.S. support for the murderous Saddam Hussein during the 1980-'88 Iran-Iraq war, which killed more than a quarter of a million Iranians.
 
The focus now should be on preventing more war, terrorism and proliferation.
 
Asked how we can get beyond the hostage crisis, Limbert said he would like to see the Iranian government end its state of "denial" about the embassy seizure, provide compensation to the victims and even invite a delegation to Iran. But he conceded for now that is still "a fantasy."

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Not Again from: Canada
April 03, 2014 10:19 AM
It is easy for those that were not victimized, by the Iranian Dictatorship, to look the other way and advocate to embrace tortures, murderers, rapists, human violators, violators of international laws, etc issues that continue to this day. The victims need justice, and unfortunately if justice fails you end in anarchy. Reconciliation is not a substitute for justice. Neither is age, nor position reached, nor individual change/maturing, not one of them have any bearing on achieving justice for the victim(s); they do/may have a bearing on the sentence if the individual is found guilty. Essentially the basis of reconciliation, and moving forward, is in fact achieving due justice for the victims. If you look at history, after WWII, clear justice was brought about, European reconciliation took place, and even to this day, those that victimized are still being brought to justice. In many previous wars justice was not carried out, conflicts continued...When justice fails, criminals are emboldened.


by: lee tabin from: chicago
April 02, 2014 9:26 PM
You must be joking. You are essentially saying that a murderer who got away with some murders 35 yrs ago should be now honored as a distinguished diplomat. Do you think this regime that chants anti American and anti Semitic slogans day and night is to be trusted!!! Liberals are NAIVE,


by: Wildomar999 from: California
April 02, 2014 7:48 PM
Hmmm... Given that the seizure of the US Embassy was an act of terrorism, is it advisable to suggest that the US should just "get over it"? Those that participated in the act were in violation of international law, various treaties, and frankly, common sense. Does not that demonstrate a certain propensity for ignoring the rest of the world while pursuing personal objectives? An ends justifies the means philosophy. Perhaps we should NOT back away from condemnation of groups or individuals just for political expediency, but rather we should hold a grudge, and refuse to accept these thugs into mainstream politics. It’s the only counter to terrorism that we have. Questions?

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid