The Cable

Former hostages seize Argo publicity, call for diplomacy with Iran

Two top officials who were held hostage in Tehran in 1979 called Monday for expanded diplomatic outreach to the Iranian government. 

The 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture was awarded Sunday evening to the film Argo, which focused on the plight of six Americans who escaped as the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by supporters of the Iranian revolution and sought refuge in the Canadian ambassador's residence. Fifty-two of their State Department colleagues did not escape the embassy and were held hostage by the Iranian revolutionaries for 444 days. Two of those hostages spoke at an event on Capitol Hill Monday and urged the Obama administration to do more to engage Iran.

"The moment before I stepped into that beautiful Algerian airplane that would carry me, Ambassador Limbert, and 51 of our colleagues home to freedom, I said to the senior Iranian hostage taker who was standing on the ramp of Iran's Mehrabad Airport, ‘I look forward to the day when your country and mine can again have a normal, diplomatic relationship,'" said Bruce Laingen, who was the chargé d'affaires, then the senior U.S. diplomat in Tehran, when the hostage crisis erupted. "I could not have imagined that more than 32 years later, our countries would still be locked in a hostile cycle of confrontation." 

"Only sustained, robust, and comprehensive diplomacy based on the premise of mutual compromise can break this cycle, which threatens to enflame the region," Laingen said. "And until we have an established channel for communication between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic on the many interests we share, our countries will continue to teeter on the brink of war."

No one should have any illusions about the cruelty and brutality of the Iranian regime, but diplomacy involves dealing with your enemies, Laingen said. He noted that President Jimmy Carter's military attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran ended in deadly failure while only negotiations and diplomacy resulted in freedom for him and his fellow victims. 

The movie Argo has reinforced negative views of the Iranian revolution in the minds of Americans, and Iranians are still clinging to their negative views of the United States, which date back to American support of the shah, Laingen said. But both sides need to set aside their grievances and take new steps now, especially at Tuesday's nuclear talks in Kazakhstan, he said.

"This wall of mistrust cannot be torn down in a day. It won't be torn down during the talks, when the United States and Iran meet with the other P5+1 delegations in Kazakhstan. My fear is that by the end of the talks tomorrow, there may even be an even higher wall unless both sides are willing to make real compromises," Laingen said.

John Limbert, who was political officer in Tehran in 1979 and later became the first deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran under the Obama administration, said Monday that Americans fail to understand the U.S. role in creating anti-Americanism in Iran and therefore America's responsibility to strive to repair long-held bilateral animosity.

"Argo highlights the negative attitudes that the two countries have held toward each other for decades. Its brief introduction attempts to provide historical context behind the embassy takeover, but the film does not convey the prevailing Iranian sense of grievance -- real or imagined -- that led to the 1979 attack, and to the emotional response in the streets of Tehran," Limbert said. "More than three decades later, the same atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and festering wounds dominates Iranian-American relations." 

The two sides have never addressed their basic historical resentment and therefore the P5+1 talks have little chance of achieving a real breakthrough, Limbert said. He argued that the Obama administration has not made any real, substantive offers that would allow Iran to compromise on its nuclear program while saving face.

"The U.S. ‘two-track' policy of engagement and pressure has -- in reality -- only one track: multi-lateral and unilateral sanctions, that whatever their stated intention and real effects, are allowing the Iranian government to claim credit for defying an international bully," Limbert said. "The Obama administration has not offered (and perhaps feels it cannot offer) far-reaching sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable Iranian concessions on its nuclear program." 

The United States should propose talks with Iran on a host of issues besides the nuclear program, if nuclear negotiations are not proving useful, Limbert said.

"If the nuclear issue may be just too politically difficult, then sustained negotiations on other issues -- still starting small -- will be the most effective way to start the countries on a new path of diplomatic engagement after three futile decades of trading insults, threats, and empty slogans," he said. "To move forward, we must stop holding all questions hostage to agreement on the nuclear issue. Such an approach guarantees failure... After all, if we and the Iranians could never agree on anything, Ambassador Laingen and I would still be in Tehran." 

The event was put on by groups including the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the Council for a Livable World, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the National Iranian American Council.

"If two former hostages can call for renewed and sustained relations with the country that held them hostage, it seems it would be an easier trick for Congress and the White House to get on board with a strong diplomatic agenda," said James Lewis, spokesman for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The Cable

Kerry’s first overseas trip off to shaky start

America's new top diplomat is already facing trouble and confusion as he begins a two-week trip whose major focus is on coalescing international action on Syria.

With John Kerry in London Monday on the first leg of his nine-country tour of Europe and the Middle East, administration officials were scrambling to salvage a planned meeting between the new U.S. secretary of state and the leaders of the Syrian opposition coalition scheduled for Thursday.

Following a Monday meeting in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry condemned the Syrian regime's use of rockets to attack civilians in Aleppo but declined to specify any of the steps he suggested earlier this month the Obama administration is "evaluating" to change the situation on the ground in Syria. He downplayed the notion that any new American initiatives would be unveiled at the upcoming Friends of Syria meeting in Italy.

"Now, let me make clear, we will continue to work closely with our British allies to address the growing humanitarian crisis, and to support the Syrian Opposition Council. We are coordinating with the Syrian opposition coalition, we're coordinating with the U.N. and with others in order to help get relief to the victims who need that help," Kerry said. 

The leaders of the Syrian opposition council are threatening to boycott the Rome meeting, according to the New York Times, "to protest what they see as fainthearted international support." The administration sent U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to Cairo to try to persuade the coalition leaders to show up in Rome.

Kerry urged the opposition leaders to attend the Rome meeting Monday, casting the meeting as a unique opportunity for them to discuss ways the United States can help persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to change his thinking. 

"They should come and meet because in fact, countries have been helping them, and because we are precisely meeting to determine how to help President Assad change the calculation on the ground," Kerry said. "I said that previously in the United States -- that President Assad needs to be able to change his calculation. And President Obama has been engaged in examining exactly in what ways we may be able to contribute to that. That's the purpose of this meeting in Rome."

Kerry said he would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Tuesday in Berlin, and that he plans to discuss specific proposals Syria at the Rome meeting. 

A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry told reporters that the secretary is focused on convincing Russia to convince Assad to change his behavior and his calculus.

"The Russia piece we've been focused on for some time, because we've been absolutely clear that there needs to be a political transition, and we felt that Russia could play a key role in convincing the regime and everyone that there needs to be that political transition," the official said. "We're following up on that... we have not seen major breakthroughs with the Russians or a change of the Russian position. So we're not expecting this meeting to be a big breakthrough either." 

Hague said the British are already working with European partners on a package of new sanctions against the Assad regime and pledged that his country would soon be unveiling new steps to help the Syrian opposition defend itself from the military onslaught perpetrated by the regime.

"We agreed that for as long as a political solution to the conflict is blocked off, the international community has a responsibility to take steps to help prevent the loss of life in Syria, loss of life including the terrible loss of life that we have just witnessed in Aleppo," Hague said. "And that's why in the United Kingdom we believe we must significantly increase our support for the Syrian opposition on top of our large contributions to the humanitarian relief effort, and we are preparing to do just that. In the face of such murder and threat of instability, our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by, and it is an important opportunity in Rome on Thursday to discuss this with our allies and partners." 

The European Union decided this week not to end its embargo on shipping arms to the Syrian opposition, but the UK was able to get through a measure that expands the types of allowable non-lethal support to the armed opposition, to include things like night-vision goggles, armored vehicles, and body armor, the senior State Department official said.

But there's no expectation that the Obama administration is preparing to relax its reluctance toward providing the Syria rebels with anything beyond limited humanitarian assistance and communications equipment.

"I don't have anything further to add on our approach to arms in Syria," the official said

UPDATE: Late Mondy, the leadership of the Syrian opposition coalition reversed its decision to boycott the Thursday Friends of Syria meeting in Rome. Kerry called coalition presidentMoaz al-Khatib Monday, after which Khatib said via Facebook that Kerry and Hague had guaranteed additional measures "to alleviate the suffering of our people".