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Iran Hostage-Taker Now a Democratic Reformist


Twenty-seven years ago, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 embassy staff members hostage and holding most of them for more than a year. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who is in Tehran, talked to one of the original engineers of the embassy takeover, and has this report.

Abbas Abdi is, to use the words of American songwriter Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction.

He was one of the core group that plotted the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, but is now a prominent pro-democracy advocate. He sees nothing wrong with holding embassy staffers hostage for 444 days, but says his own imprisonment for pro-democracy views was unjust. He is sharply critical of President Bush, but at the same time welcomes the Bush administration's calls for democratization in the Middle East.

"You think I have changed and gone through some metamorphosis," Abdi says, "but it is America that has changed. Where there were once Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter backing the Shah of Iran, there is now George Bush promoting democracy."

Abdi, now 57 years old, helped plan and execute an event that colors the U.S.-Iranian relationship, or to be more precise, lack of a relationship, to this day. Both countries tend to look at the other through the prism of the takeover of the American Embassy and the holding of 52 American hostages for more than a year.

Abbas Abdi has no regrets about the takeover, saying that the students blamed their treatment under the autocratic Shah of Iran on the United States.

"What was the big deal? Sure, some people got slapped around, but both countries should just forget about it and mend their relationship," he says.

His pro-democratic views have landed him in trouble with the authorities. In 2003, he got a five-year prison sentence for publishing a poll that showed overwhelming public support in Iran for resuming ties with the United States. He was released in two years.

"No, my imprisonment and the hostage taking are not the same", he says. "I was framed and illegally jailed, but the hostages were like prisoners of war."

Abbas Abdi is now in an isolated position, critical of the government for its undemocratic ways and dismissive of the reformist movement for its inability to effect change in Iran.

The government has been corrupted by oil money, he says.

"The more petrodollars come in, the greater the despotism," Abdi says. "And true democracy can only come when those proceeds are taken out of the hands of the government and given to the people."

Abdi says Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-American stance is illogical.

"How can he support the legitimate government of Iraq, which is sponsored by the United States, yet at the same time be against America," he asks.

As far as the United States goes, he says there is much to both criticize and admire.

"I criticize America, but if any other country had the kind of power that it has, we do not know how savage it would be," he says.