Former US Hostages: Their Thoughts on New Iran Diplomacy

October 31, 2013

            The United States marks the 34th anniversary of the American Embassy seizure in Tehran on November 4— just four days before the resumption of diplomatic talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers in Geneva. The new talks, launched in October, have also featured the highest level engagement between the Islamic Republic and the United States since the embassy takeover, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days. Iran still marks the takeover with an annual commemoration in front of the former U.S. Embassy.

            The Iran Primer invited former hostages to comment on the new diplomatic effort, which is focused on ending the longstanding dispute over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Their opinions varied widely. 
John Limbert, former political officer in 1979 and later the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the Obama administration
      It's about time for new dialogue. Thirty-four years is long enough for us to be stuck on a road to nowhere. Now we are dealing with a delicate plant that will require very careful handling if it is not to rot or wither.
Bruce Laingen, former chargé d'affaires (senior U.S. diplomat taken hostage)
      Is it time for a dialogue with Iran?  The answer is easy: It is high time.  Talking with Iran is long overdue and should begin without conditions.
      It is obviously difficult for anyone who has not seen the specifics taken by the world’s six major powers and the Iranians, but both sides need clarity in their objectives . The absence of openness means that there must be some stepping back by both sides. 
      But given that the Iranians are the principal participant in the contest, the lead must come from them in greater transparency on long-range objectives.  Just what are the Iranian government’s real intentions in its nuclear agenda? It has long been lacking in clarity. The U.S. government needs to know better than we do now. Just where do the Iranians want to take their purposes and objectives? Tell us, please. We are weary of reading between the lines!   
Barry Rosen, former press attaché
      The apparent new dialogue, initiated by President [Hassan] Rouhani, is nothing but the change of the public face of the regime in Tehran in order to rid the country of the international sanctions that are crushing the economic and fiscal system of Iran. In order to accomplish the destruction of the sanctions, the regime is talking about a change in its nuclear program. Some hope that this is real and that Iran will show all its sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency and be a willing partner in lowering the or even halting the refinement of uranium, which Iran says is for peaceful nuclear energy.
      I believe that Iran's record is quite clear on nuclear refinement. The regime has consistently been enriching uranium at levels above what is need for nuclear energy, and thus one can only think that Iran is moving along in its plan to use its enrichment. Iran has used its facilities to add approximately 1,000 centrifuges to increase enrichment capacity.
     I can't see the regime in Tehran changing policy toward the United States for other reasons. The keystone of the Islamic Republic is still “Death to America,” no matter what is said in news reports. How will this regime be considered legitimate if it does a complete turn around and tries to build a relationship on maneuvering to destroy the sanctions without really moving itself away from its policy of a nuclear Iran. 
            Finally, the regime needs to address other issues besides human rights and support for terrorists groups like Hezbollah and the inhumane regime in Syria. From my personal perspective, Iran has never apologized for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979 and the 444 days of agony that our diplomats and military suffered and are still suffering today. Moreover, while all of this is going on, Iranians will gather at the former Embassy in Teheran to burn American flags and scream "Death to America" in five days from now.
William Daugherty, former third secretary (CIA case officer)
            As you may have already heard, Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing; Rouhani is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. So before proceeding beyond the general discussion stage, there must be concrete evidence that [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is fully behind not just discussions with the United States, but also achieving a permanent change in the relationship. That change must be composed of complete U.S. satisfaction with any agreements on the nuclear issues.  Moreover, there must be some substantial indication that Khamenei is capable of controlling the hardline factions that will oppose, perhaps violently, any agreement with the United States. 
      Without the two desiderata stated above, the United States should not proceed beyond a continuation of the dialogue, until and unless the Iranians come to an agreement that satisfies these two demands. 
      A significant component of the ability to manage the hardline opposition is evidence that the Revolutionary Guards leadership and higher echelons are either in accord with the agreement or that Khamenei is able to manage any dissent (or violence).  The Revolutionary Guards leadership have a huge personal stake in continuing the embargo because that is one source (through controlling and running the smuggling networks) of their not insignificant income. 
            In sum, I am fully supportive of a dialogue with the Iranians and reaching an agreement, provided that it includes the above. As an intelligence professional, I understand fully how difficult it is to obtain concrete proof of the willingness and ability of an opponent to change after nearly 34 years of blatant hostility, especially when that hostility includes terrorist actions that have killed nearly 300 Americans and wounded over 1,000 more (e.g., the Marine barracks in Beirut, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, at least one aircraft hijacking in December of 1984).  Not to mention the taking of hostages (both in the embassy and in Beirut, through Hezbollah), the desecration of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and other acts of terrorism against our allies (e.g., Israel, through Iran’s support for Hamas and two deadly bombings in Argentina). But absent such proof, there should be no agreement. 
Cmdr. Donald Sharer, former naval air attaché
            I feel the U.S. government has let us down. If the United States is so intent on relations with Iran, we don't have a chance of recouping 14.5 months of our lives, let alone the pain, agony and not knowing when we would die at their hands. We have been forsaken by our country for 30 years on seeking retribution and once again we will be shut out.  Thirty-two years I served, just to be kicked aside for a blatant act of terror. People in Washington D.C. should have been there.
Col. Charles Scott, former naval air attaché
      In my view, Iran's current attempt at “peaches and cream” diplomacy is a clever ploy to stall, as long as possible, while continuing to develop a nuclear weapon and its delivery means. The goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to eventually dominate the world. Let's not be suckered in by this ploy. Forget the sweet talk and demand specific action.
Lt. Col. David Roeder, former deputy Air Force attaché
            One of the most memorable quotes from newly-elected President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address was, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
             Likewise, it was President Reagan who often repeated the old Russian proverb “doveryai no proveryia” (trust, but verify) especially when meeting with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
            One cannot help but wonder if those historic principals may have been on the mind of Kennedy's fellow Bay Stater John Kerry on October 3rd during a press conference in Japan.
            Responding to a reporter's question about the potential thawing of relations between the U.S. and Iran, our new Secretary of State opined that it would be “diplomatic malpractice of the worst order” not to see if Iran was truly willing to recognize almost universal international demands concerning its nuclear ambitions.
            Almost immediately, the Obama Administration asked Congress to delay its scheduled consideration of a new and reportedly tougher Iran sanctions bill.
            All this, of course, stems from the recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly where we saw several newsworthy developments: the start of newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's so-called “charm offensive,” the closed door meeting between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad [Javad] Zarif, President Obama's unprecedented “first blink” phone call to Rouhani after more than 30 years of public silence between the two nations and, finally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's impassioned warning that Rouhani is but a “wolf in sheep's clothing” and that Iran has consistently proven that it can never be trusted.
            While most of the main stream media has quickly endorsed the view that President Rouhani is a genuine “moderate” with whom meaningful negotiations might be possible, in my opinion that view appears to be more wishful thinking than cold, hard reality. It is also interesting to note that, as Middle East scholar Hussein Banai explained, “In an Iranian context, a 'moderate' means you don't pick fights with the ruling class and at the same time, you pander to popular grievances people have about that ruling class.” Stepping back and looking at Rouhani's history is, therefore, a critically important and revealing exercise.
            First of all, and perhaps most importantly, we must never forget that to call Iran an Islamic republic is, at best, a misnomer. Iran is first, last and always a militant Shiite theocracy and the 64-year-old Rouhani, unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a long-term, well-connected cleric within that environment.
            Second, under the Iranian political system, the elected President simply is not the power behind the former Shah's Peacock Throne and wouldn't have even been allowed to seek office unless he enjoyed the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his Guardian Council.
            Thirdly, Rouhani has long served as the chief Iranian negotiator during numerous multinational and United Nations efforts to determine if the true Iranian dream is to become the Middle East's predominant nuclear power. While those negotiations have always purchased additional time for Iran's weapons research, they have otherwise gone absolutely nowhere!
            Whether or not Secretary Kerry's noble approach holds any promise for improved relations between Iran and the West, current U.S. foreign policy within the region - fragmented as it certainly is – places very little credibility on our side of the negotiating scale.
America is clearly in the process of reducing its presence in the Middle East as Kerry's and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagle's visit to Japan and President Obama's planned, but now canceled, tour of the Asian Basin clearly indicates.
            Writing in the September issue of Commentary magazine, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Elliott Abrams wrote that “the administration's so-called 'pivot to Asia' is the supposed refocusing of American foreign policy away from the Middle East and onto the Far East.”
            Think about the potential consequences of that pull-out to our regional, but increasingly wary, allies. Even President Obama's own ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, recently commented “If it's a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.”
            Shortly before taking office in August, Rouhani was a principal participant in large anti-Israeli rally during which he described America's only democratic ally in the region as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world.” And finally, during his inaugural speech, Rouhani fully endorsed the Supreme Leader's ironclad position on Iran becoming a nuclear power.
            While he may be the epitome of an Iranian defined “moderate,” nothing has or is likely to change. Under most western definitions of the word, a “moderate”, Rouhani is not—not even close!
Sgt. Rodney (Rocky) Sickmann, former Marine guard
            These negotiations are frustrating. Frustrating that our government isn’t willing to hold Iran accountable for the inhumane, brutal and mental torture they put 52 Americans through for 444 days yet, in most recent negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program, they chose to negotiate even when Iran still offers no concessions. Iran has always depended on intimidation and terrorism to stay in power and during our 444 days in captivity Iran learned one thing: Terrorism on the United States works
      It is time. It’s time to start from the beginning on November 4, 1979 – the day we were taken hostage. That day dramatically reshaped the politics of the US and Iran and it’s time for Iran to be held accountable for their illegal actions and pay reparations consistent with the historical amounts established by the court.
            How can our nation ever make progress unless the US addresses the core issues within this terrorist country? We need to work within certain parameters to ensure the negotiations not only further the interests of the US, but also protect all Americans and our future generations. We need to demonstrate that the US will not tolerate the terrorism Iran began on November 4, 1979. We must hold them accountable and only then do then do I agree that negotiations towards a nuclear program solution would be successful.
*Titles and rank reflect positions during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis.

Photo credit: William Daugherty via Armstrong Atlantic State University


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