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

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