The Iran Hostage Crisis– Part II
In these excerpts, Bruce Laingen, then Charge d’Affaires of U.S. Embassy Tehran and one of the “super Satans” kept hostage at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, discusses his concerns about a possible “apology” by the U.S. government to the regime, the confusion engendered by changes in the Iranian government, the Argo episode (and how the Ministry knew of their whereabouts but never told anyone), the failure of the rescue mission, his imprisonment, negotiations for their release, and their eventual flight to freedom. To read Part I of his interview, go here.
The 44 days became 444 days
Q: What were you getting from the people you talked to in Washington? I suppose it was the desk and David Newsom and others. Was it sort of “Keep your chin up, we are doing everything we can?”
LAINGEN: Oh, yeah. They did everything they could from Washington for all of us. They kept assuring the three of us they were doing everything they could. As I suggested, we were kept informed, reasonably, obviously not totally. We didn’t know everything. We knew a lot about what Washington was trying to do. We knew about the efforts through the UN with the Secretary General to get a UN panel of inquiry in there. That was front page news here and a front page element of American policy for the months of late December and January and into February. We knew enough about that to be concerned about it.
The three of us were deeply concerned that we seemed to be prepared to make some kind of deal with the Iranian regime in terms of that panel of inquiry and in the process extend a kind of “apology” to the Iranians. We thought this would be counterproductive to our interests in the long run and we thought it would subvert the commitment the three of us and our colleagues over in the compound had made to the very principle of diplomatic immunity. To depart from that in any way we thought would be wrong. We believed that to the point of being prepared, I think I can say again with conviction, for some risk. We thought it better to take some risk than concede that point to the Iranians. We were very nervous about that UN business….
I should add that as all of this was going on there were changes in the role of the Foreign Minister. Mr. Yazdi, of course, lost office, as did Prime Minister Bazargan when his provisional government resigned within 36 hours after the seizure of the Embassy, and that saw accomplished one of the central purposes on the part of the more radical elements of the revolutionary regime. That was to oust that government that appeared to them to be prepared to let the revolution drift back into a relationship with the United States. They wanted to stop that. They were able to stop that with the seizure of the Embassy. So Yazdi and Bazargan and their government fell within 36 hours, and power then centered in the Revolutionary Council that had been functioning before but from behind the scenes. Now power was centered in that Revolutionary Council and, of course, centered ultimately in the hands of the Ayatollah….
Mr. Ghotbzadeh took his place in early December. One of his first public statements was to the effect that Laingen and the other two hostages in the Foreign Ministry were free to leave. That got on the wires very quickly, particularly back in Washington. Within hours we were given instructions that got to us through some source to be indeed ready to leave. Ghotbzadeh, however, had made it clear that we were free only to leave the Ministry. He could not guarantee our security after we left the building. So his assurance of our being free to leave proved hollow from the beginning.
There is a myth around that I refused to leave at that point because I didn’t want to leave before my staff in the Embassy were permitted to leave. That is myth. That is not fact. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t be assured that I would be free to leave. If I had been free to leave in the total sense, to leave the country, I guess I would have left, particularly since Washington expected me to leave. I can assure you that I would not have been happy to leave, because I thought still at that point, and this is only a month after we had been taken hostage, that we could work it out and I didn’t want to leave my colleagues in the lurch.
In any event, I didn’t leave. I could not leave. Meanwhile the students, over in the compound, on
occasion would clamor periodically with the Ayatollah and with others for our heads. They wanted the “super Satans” as we were called, the three of us. That happened three, four, five times in the course of the next several months. Sometimes the demand got louder than other times. At one point early on, the first few days of the seizure, they were reported at the doors of the Foreign Ministry, physically ready to take us. In each case, when the decision was eventually his, the Ayatollah decided not to let them get at us. Just why, I will never know. I guess I have to conclude that it was one gesture symbolic to some degree, however slight, of their respect for diplomatic status and immunity and something they could point to for world public opinion as demonstrating their “respect” for diplomatic immunity.
Q: Did you have any contact with Ghotbzadeh at all?
LAINGEN: I had contact with Ghotbzadeh twice. Once was when he summoned me to his office in February in the height of the process involving the UN panel of inquiry and the expectation then that part of that process would see the hostages in the compound turned over physically to the control of the government, not the students. The idea was that they would be moved physically from the compound to the Foreign Ministry and into the same diplomatic reception rooms where we were. There were three very large rooms there. They were to be moved there and held in one room. Indeed, they moved 50 cots in there and 50 small steel wall cabinets for hostages to keep their clothes.
He called me to his office, on the same floor where I was held, to tell us this and to ask for my cooperation in insuring that there would be no attempt to escape from there at that point. The theory was that eventually the government would have enough control that they would be able to release the hostages themselves. It didn’t happen.
Then I saw him one other time when he came down into that room and talked to us seeking cooperation from Victor Tomseth in some kind of testimony for a trial that they were envisaging of a counterrevolutionary that they had captured. I had strong distaste for Ghotbzadeh at the beginning because of the way in which he maligned the United States image and purposes in Iran when he was head of what was called the “Voice and Vision of Iran.” That was the propaganda office. He had that office during the months when I was Chargé in a free Embassy. He had not been very helpful. So I didn’t like the guy.
I didn’t like him at the outset for the role he played as Foreign Minister, but I sensed as time went on over those months, that he came to the conclusion, himself, fairly early, that this hostage business was counterproductive to the revolution and that it needed to be ended. I think he genuinely wanted to end it and was prepared to make some concessions to do that. And he stuck his neck out to do that. He showed some guts. I regret the fact that eventually he was executed. I thought he was one of those Iranians in the revolutionary arena that could, over time, have put a more rational and more moderate direction to that revolution. But he took too many risks with the more radical elements to the point where he eventually was accused, rightly or wrongly, who can say, of conspiring to kill the Ayatollah himself. So were the charges. The Ayatollah eventually allowed him to be executed even though Ghotbzadeh supposedly had one of the closest relationships of anyone in the revolutionary regime with the Ayatollah.
Q: I take it that the Ayatollah was looming over everything all the time.
LAINGEN: Of course, it was the Ayatollah’s revolution. It was his revolution to lose. We had no doubt of that. During the time the provisional government was functioning and we were dealing with it, we knew. And Bazargan, the Provisional Prime Minister, knew better than anyone else that the decision making power was not his on fundamental issues, but was the Ayatollah’s. He used the expression in a celebrated public interview once that he was like a knife without a blade. He didn’t have real power. The Ayatollah was a looming presence. We watched him a lot on television, particularly when we were hostages. We could watch television, usually, in the guards’ room next to our room. The army guards would allow us to do that. Endless, almost daily, lectures, homilies, sermons, preachments by the Ayatollah to the faithful. We got sick and tired of it, but I can assure you we never lost our “respect” for his capacity to control that place by the power of his words, the power of his ideas, his physical presence and his pivotal role, of course, of bringing on the revolution.
The 44 days became 444 days. I think my comments earlier suggest that I and my two colleagues, and I suspect most of my staff over in the compound, believed that it would work out. That this would be another one of these things that we had gone through in February. Maybe in a day or two we could work this thing out. When 14 of our colleagues were released, the blacks and women, except for two women and one black, that was further indication to us that maybe the pressure of international opinion was beginning to work and the Ayatollah would bring this thing to a head and conclude it. In other words, we lived on hope, grasping at straws and signals. As it turned out we gave much too much credence to every one of them.
In a situation like that you live on hope. That is as much as you’ve got. So you tell yourself, “Hey, by Thanksgiving, they will let us go.” “Christmas? They wouldn’t hold 53 Americans hostages through Christmas and thus demonstrate to world opinion how heartless a regime this is.” Well, Thanksgiving and Christmas came, New Year’s came, St. Patrick’s came, birthdays came. Second Thanksgiving, second Christmas even. We lived on hope and I am sure my colleagues in far worse straits than I was over in that compound lived on that same kind of hope.
The Six Americans with the Canadians (i.e., The Argo Episode)
Q: Were you aware of the Americans who were with the Canadians?
LAINGEN: We were very aware of those six Americans who were around town and hadn’t been caught, because we were in telephone conversation with them. We got into contact with them. We were able to find them with help particularly from Kate Koob and Bill Royer who weren’t taken hostage for the first 24 hours. Victor Tomseth was the one who handled that most. He was on the telephone with the six several times, giving them advice to where they should go as they moved around town from one spot to another, including a time in Tomseth’s own apartment, where his Thai cook still lived and for a time became quite celebrated for harboring those six. After being in the British compound for a while, they got in touch with the Canadians. The first conversation was with the Canadian Minister, the number two, Mr. Sheardon, who said in those celebrated words, “My God, where have you been? Why didn’t you call us before?” I get emotional on the subject because of what the Canadians did. For the next three months, roughly, those six lived in the homes of those two Canadians, the Minister and the Ambassador. Except for one, the Agricultural Attaché, who spent several weeks in the Swedish Embassy in hiding.
Yes, we were aware of them. Indeed, we told the Desk Officer of the Foreign Ministry who handled American affairs on the second day that those six were still around and we needed the Ministry’s help in getting them out of the country. They responded by saying, “Look, we have enough trouble with you all, coping with the ones we’ve got. Let’s worry about these six later.” They never divulged the fact that they were there. They knew it, but kept it secret and I give them credit for that.
The Canadian Ambassador got in to see us and eventually he told us that they were with him. It was he who told us that. They weren’t in telephone contact with us then. Over those three months, the Canadian Ambassador got in several times. He kept us informed to a degree about what was being done to get them out. We would pace up and down the central floor of that diplomatic reception room, he and I, making sure we were out of earshot of anybody while he briefed me about what they were doing in terms of fraudulent passports, etc.
Suddenly, one day we learned that not only had the six left, but the Canadian Ambassador himself had left and closed his Embassy and taken his entire staff with him. That was a very good day, because it gave us such enormous satisfaction that here at least was one success. We had fooled them. We had played a marvelous game with them and gotten them out. And, of course, it was a success back here, the way in which the image of Canada became for a time so splendid among the American public.
The next morning, I learned about this later, a member of the American press corps in Tehran, who hadn’t been kicked out yet, went to the gates of the Embassy and told the student who was on guard on the other side of the gate what had happened; i.e. that six Americans had been spirited out of the country with the help of the Canadian Embassy. And he responded, according to this story, “But that is illegal.” We thought that was one of the funniest expressions we had heard the whole time. That he could say that standing there, having stolen an entire embassy….
It often would boggle our mind thinking about it, that the three of us were sitting in the Ministry and our Iranian counterparts in Washington were allowed to function freely until early April 1980. The fact that the Embassy in Washington was allowed to remain open was a product, of course, of Carter policy, broadly defined. That is, to keep every option open, to keep probing, to leave every avenue possible available so that if some contacts that hadn’t been considered, could be, and I guess Carter just felt that the Iranian Embassy in Washington was a possible liaison to something with somebody.
It bothered me and I can assure you it bothered our families, not least my wife. I may have mentioned earlier that there developed a tradition of prayer vigils across the street from that Embassy, begun by members of my parish in Washington, All Saints Church. These people eventually recruited a fairly large number of regulars who always appeared on Sunday night for a prayer vigil and sing-along across the street from that Embassy. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” became the theme song of that group and was sung every Sunday night, hopefully, my wife would say, within the hearing of those who occupied that chancery. On at least one occasion they knocked on its door, went in and presented a petition. But the fact of that Embassy remaining open while we were kept hostage was troublesome. It was a curious aspect of that whole affair.
The Failure of Diplomacy and the Rescue Mission
Q: What were other developments? You had heard that the Canadians had gotten six Americans out.
LAINGEN: From the time of the visit of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Waldheim, in January, until the break of relations finally on April 6, 1980, was a time of rather high maneuver and activity on the part of the Carter administration using the United Nations. Using that avenue as a possible means of developing contacts and encouraging some degree of response from the regime in Tehran.
The Secretary General’s visit to Tehran was a bit of a disaster, because he got not only inhibited, but I think frightened physically, by the way in which carefully constructed demonstrations were mounted against him in his sight and in his presence, hostile to the United Nations and to him personally. But his visit and his departure in January did not end the effort through the United Nations, because then there began a long process that extended a couple of months to try to develop some kind of a panel of inquiry under the Secretary General’s auspices. In its final evolution it was to be a panel that would come to Tehran — and a panel eventually did — and listen to the grievances of the Iranians, hear what the USG had to say and, ideally, would also sit down and hear from the hostages themselves about how they felt about the situation. The three of us sitting in a corner — it was destined to failure from the beginning, because Ayatollah Khomeini announced actually on the day that the panel was en route to Tehran that the hostage issue would be resolved by the majlis, the parliament….
Q: Did anyone talk to you from the panel?
LAINGEN: No, they never got in to see us, even though that was the plan. We did see the Secretary General of the United Nations back in January and some of his colleagues who came in with him. The collapse of that United Nations effort essentially ended the diplomatic phase that Carter had pursued so actively in the first six months roughly. There were continuing efforts through the French and Argentine lawyer types and others who would pop up occasionally. And there was an exchange of letters that became very celebrated, involving one to Khomeini from Carter. Its authenticity was never fully determined, at least not by us, but eventually Jimmy Carter in Washington realized that the diplomatic process had been played out, and on April 6 he broke relations, and the Chargé in Washington and his remaining staff, which was very small at that time, were ordered to leave within 72 hours….
That was the end of that process. The next big event was the failed rescue mission at the end of April, April 25 by our counting, April 26 back here. That day — for all the hostages, I think, surely it was for me — remains of the most poignant memories of that entire crisis. Not so much that the rescue mission failed, but that eight men died in its failure. The three of us in the Foreign Ministry knew nothing about the planning. We all assumed that planning of that kind was going on back in Washington and had been going on since day one of the hostage crisis. We had been encouraged, admonished, by Mike Howland, the security officer, to always have at our cot sides in that room where we were held a few essentials in a small plastic bag, so that if a rescue mission were to take place and the rescuers should suddenly bolt into our room, we would have that ready to go with us. We learned of the rescue mission almost immediately because at that point we had access to a shortwave radio. So we knew about it, I think, before the guards who were watching us in the room adjacent to us were aware of it. It was a very dark day, one that grew worse as we learned from a later broadcast that eight men had died.
The result in Tehran, among other things, was that all of the hostages to my knowledge in the compound, all 50 of them, were moved physically. Some simply around the city, some in the compound, but most of them to other cities in the country. Moved blindfolded, bound in the back of vans at great risk, with injuries to some of them because of a traffic accident. The whole process was designed to insure that Washington would never try another rescue mission because of the difficulty of trying to find all of the hostages in that many places around the country.
They remained scattered around the country for much of the remaining time, although all of them were back in Tehran by, I would say, November of that year. We expected to be moved as well, the three of us in the Foreign Ministry. But while security was greatly tightened in the room in which we were held, and some of our “perks” were taken away, otherwise we were not affected.
I have the highest respect for those who went on that rescue mission. For that matter, I have an enormous respect for those who planned it, however much today with benefit of hindsight it is obvious that there were many mistakes in the process of that planning. And, of course, I have undying regard and respect for the eight men, and in particular, for their families, who died in that process. We have tried to express that on the anniversary, April 26, here in Washington when there is annually a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery at the monument for all of them — and a grave site for three of them — to remember what they had sacrificed. The ceremony is put on by an organization called, “No Greater Love,” which is a private non-profit group here in Washington that has been active since the Vietnam War in reaching out to families and children of people held in such circumstances.
After the failure of the rescue mission in late April, the whole process, as far as we were concerned, and I think as far as Washington was concerned, went into pretty much a stalemate for the next five months, roughly, when it was clear that there was no further hope, or likely progress, in the diplomatic process of probing for openings that the Carter administration had been following up to that time. It was essentially a time of watching the new majlis in Tehran come into being so that they could be responsive to the Ayatollah’s directive that the hostage issue would be resolved by that body. All of that we took with a grain of salt. We knew full well that the majlis would not agree on anything that the Ayatollah himself didn’t approve of, or for that matter that the students, the terrorists, didn’t approve of, their voice being that consequential in any action in respect to the hostages….
The Iran-Iraq War and Strengthening the Radicals’ Hold on Power
It was a long hot summer for us sitting in the Ministry, and I am sure much worse for my colleagues over in the compound. It does get hot in Tehran in the summer. Nothing really of consequence happened until late September of that year, when the Iran-Iraq war began with Iraq’s obvious, clear-cut act of aggression across Iranian borders in the south, particularly around Khorramshahr. Clearly an act of aggression, however much the two sides, including Iran, had been engaged for over a month or more before that in a lot of border skirmishing, reflecting the problems between the two countries at that time. But this was a massive offensive across borders designed by Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to take and hold areas of the south of Iran, oil producing areas, and, of course, in the process strengthen Baghdad’s access to the Gulf, which in normal times is only a very narrow strip of land. A larger purpose, as well, in launching that war in Saddam’s mind, was to take advantage of what he sensed was Iran’s discombobulation and isolation on the international scene as a consequence of the hostage crisis, to try to topple the regime in Tehran, to undermine the Ayatollah, believing as well that he would have support from the Arab minority in the south of Iran.
That didn’t work out, of course, and as we all know the result was an eight-year war of enormous consequence and loss to both countries, neither of which to this day, 1993, has fully recovered. Indeed, there remain today tens of thousands, to my knowledge, of POWs held by both countries now for many years. And it still is in a state of cease fire. The war has not been resolved beyond a cease fire engineered by the United Nations in 1988. The result of that aggression was not discombobulation of the Tehran regime, not to topple that regime, but in the immediate sense to strengthen that regime. It doesn’t take much to get Iranians exercised about the wrongs of Arabs, particularly Iraqi Arabs, and this was a clear wrong as they saw it. As a consequence there was a great surge of nationalist fervor in Tehran in particular….There wasn’t much damage done to Tehran at that time; it was mostly psychological in terms of what the Iraqis were able to do in flying without much challenge over the city….
The outbreak of that war worried us and I am sure it worried Washington. This was not only a worry because of the tragedy, the futility and dangers of that war in a larger sense, but also because of the way in which our immediate response and concern was that there would be a further and very considerable delay in getting at the hostage issue….
By late September and early October, the Iranians were beginning to appreciate — not least because of the Iraqi aggression — that they needed to get on with this hostage situation and get it resolved. Iran was hurting by that time rather considerably from the economic sanctions, however incomplete they were. And hurting in the way the Iraqi aggression, clear as it was, produced almost no sympathetic response from the rest of the world in support of Tehran, realizing clearly more than they had realized before at any time in that crisis how isolated Iran was in international public opinion because of this crisis. And of course, by this time, September, October, the Iranians had done with us. They had finished the use of us in the sense that a major purpose in the beginning in taking the hostages was not simply to undermine the provisional government of the revolution, get rid of Bazargan, to get a more radical government in place, but also to get a majlis and a constitution in place, a referendum completed, and all of the process of legitimizing a more radical government by using the hostages as pawns in that political process to fire up the passion of the masses. By September much of this had been accomplished. Virtually all of it had been accomplished. A majlis was in place, dominated by radical elements, dominated by clerics. They didn’t need us anymore. It was possible to begin thinking, from their point of view, of ending the crisis, getting rid of the hostages. We were becoming a kind of burden.
A Break in the Ice – Negotiations Toward a Deal
I don’t have the dates immediately in mind. I wasn’t aware of its happening, of course, but one of the Deputy Prime Ministers of the regime, Mr. Tabatabai was sent to Bonn to convey to the Germans and through the Germans to us in Washington the conditions, the requirements, that the Iranians were demanding that had to be accomplished to end the crisis. And that had been preceded by a celebrated speech by the Ayatollah in September in which he spelled out four specific conditions. The three of us in the Foreign Ministry hearing that speech and reading it didn’t sense as we should have, I think, that these four conditions were as important as they were. To us in large part they sounded like more of the same. But there was enough difference in them, there were enough things left out of previous demands, to make Washington appreciate better than we did that these conditions were newly phrased and more negotiable. And the fact that Tabatabai went to Bonn to convey these conditions in that fashion was even more important. It was that trip by Tabatabai to Bonn with those conditions, obviously blessed by Khomeini, that set in motion the process that eventually saw the crisis end. That was in September-October. It didn’t end until January 20. It took that long.
It also required at one point rather early in this process that the Iranians needed a different interlocutor, hence the Algerians. They concluded the Algerians would be a better vehicle at that time. The Algerians were highly regarded because they had accomplished a revolution and overcome their problems of colonial status with France. They were seen as a revolutionary regime. So the Iranians turned to the Algerians, and as far as Washington was concerned Algeria met some essential requirements as well. It was non-aligned and we had reasonable relations with Algeria. Thus began the process of getting agreement — the money hassle began — involving endless time, energy, thought, and intelligence to determine how the issue of the frozen assets was to be dealt with.
Eventually they were dealt with, in a remarkable process of diplomacy. There were many ups and downs. Some of them so far down that we worried, and I know Washington worried, that the issue simply could not be resolved, because of its complexity and because of Iran’s demands, before the end of the Carter administration. Of course it did go down to the wire to the last minute, almost to the last second, before it could be done.
It was done, thanks to a remarkable group of Americans. Thanks to the skill of the Algerians as well. We came to know, we, that is our government, how useful a non-aligned country could be for us at that time, particularly one with the professional diplomatic skill, highly French oriented, that the Algerians could bring to bear. The Algiers Accord — eventually worked out in the waning minutes of the Carter administration — saw us released. Part of that Accord is the Hague Tribunal, today sitting 14 years later in the Hague still resolving economic, commercial, governmental claims against Iran and Iran against us. The Accord and Tribunal have been a boon to lawyers and will be for years. But the Algiers Accord and particularly the Hague Tribunal represent in many ways a remarkable, as Christopher himself said, who was the prime player in that process, “a classic example of diplomacy.” That is what it was, with a lot of skill and innovative approaches applied to a settlement affecting something like $12 billion in frozen assets, which Mr. Carter had wisely, early on, frozen.
Q: Apparently that was quite a shock to the Iranians. It hadn’t really occurred to them that someone might do that.
LAINGEN: Well, it was a shock in the sense that we acted early enough to prevent them from realizing it was a possibility.
The assets did not, of course, all go back to Tehran. Indeed, after American banks had been provided for in terms of interest claims they had in loans outstanding and given particularly the way a good bulk of it was reserved for an account in The Hague to make possible this process of resolving economic and commercial claims, only a small part of the assets actually went back to Tehran.
Blindfolded and Imprisoned
As I said before all hostages were back in Tehran by December and we were still sitting in the Ministry. All along the three of us had far more knowledge, of course, than the others did. Never total knowledge, never complete awareness of the facts, but very considerable. By late December all of us were pretty well informed including the 49 other hostages, Richard Queen having departed in mid-summer, were aware of what the Algerians were up to, that they were the interlocutors, that they were the middlemen. And at Christmas time in 1980, the Algerians in Tehran were able to come in and meet all of the hostages, to my knowledge, and tell them essentially where things stood. The three of us in the Foreign Ministry, suddenly on December 23, were given notice that we were to be taken from the Foreign Ministry that night. The notice came to us around 7:00 that evening. We were told that we would be taken to join our colleagues.
I think that was the intention that evening of those who eventually did take us. But that evening the process failed and we were not moved. I protested. I said, “Why are we being moved now?” I protested to the Chief of Protocol and tried to get word to the Swiss Ambassador, who had been our benefactor on so many occasions. I was unable to get through to him. Approaching midnight that night on December 23 the room was entered by a large group of people, including clearly members of the student terrorist group over in the compound, but also members of the Foreign Ministry and a couple of representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office. After a good deal of discussion took place — we demanded to know why we were being moved and demanded that we have access to the Swiss Ambassador — the three of us were taken down into the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry. There we were ordered to get into a van.
At that point, sensing that we were also to be blindfolded and bound, restrictions that we had been assured were not going to be imposed on us when we were talking up on the third floor, we got into a bit of a contest, triggered by Mike Howland’s having been pushed into the van and reacting by saying, “You can’t push me” and fighting back giving a well placed kick at the student terrorist who was trying to push him into the van.
That saw us almost at sword’s point and eventually my two colleagues were ordered up into the room above and I as well, but I had lingered a while to protest and I was then ordered by gun point at my head to leave and tell my colleagues that if they tried anything like this again there would be real trouble.
That incident in the presence of members of the government, the Foreign Ministry staff and the Prime Minister’s Office, obviously embarrassed everybody concerned, including the student terrorists who were frustrated in their efforts. We spent the rest of that night wondering what the hell was going to happen to us the next day or later that same night. Nothing did happen and we were able to spend Christmas in that room.
One of the Algerians came in to see us. The Papal Nuncio came in to see us. We had a ceremony. We had in effect a kind of party. We began to think that we were secure in the position we had before, but in fact we were eventually moved on January 3, I think it was, when a group of terrorist students returned and this time were clearly determined to get us. We were ordered into vans with the clear cooperation of the Foreign Ministry and taken that night not to join our colleagues but to solitary confinement in some prison somewhere in Tehran. This was contrary to the assurances given us again that we would in fact be taken to join our colleagues.
We were put into prison, I think, clearly as an act of retribution for the dust-up we had gotten into during the first attempt to move us. So we spent the next several weeks in solitary confinement until a few nights before we were released on January 20. On the night of January 19 we were suddenly ordered to go to another room in the building where everybody else at that point was being held for physical examinations. It turned out that the doctors examining us were Algerians and it was pretty clear to us then that something conclusive was about to happen.
We had our physical examinations and that night we were also invited to make a statement on Iranian television. Some of us did, some of us did not. They were clearly hoping by the nature of their questions that we would say things that were useful to them to confirm their continuing allegations and insistence that we had been treated in a humanitarian fashion. None of us cooperated in that fashion to my knowledge. I did not. I don’t think any of that was used very effectively on television.
Flight to Freedom
The next day nothing happened until late in the afternoon. Then we were given copies of Tehran’s English language newspaper, the Tehran Times, replete with headlines that the crisis was over, that an agreement had been worked out, and that the U.S. had supposedly conceded on every condition posed by Iran– which of course we would later learn was far from the truth. About 5:00 in the afternoon we were told that we would be leaving for the airport in twenty minutes and that we could each take a small tote bag of whatever personal possessions we had. Those twenty minutes became several hours, but late in the evening we were ordered to put on blindfolds and led down into a cold courtyard where we could hear buses lined up and ready to go.
On the way down the stairs we were told we could not, despite the earlier statement, carry our tote bags, but that they would be on the plane when we got there. I resisted, saying a promise was a promise, and that I didn’t think they would be true to their word. This went on for several minutes, with my guard finally saying as he pulled the bag away, “Don’t you trust us?” To that I could only laugh.
On the buses we were ordered to sit without talking, keeping our blindfolds on. I followed orders, as did my colleagues. It was a very tense time, and I remembered what Mike Howland had often said, and that was that the trip to the airport, if and when it came, could well be the most dangerous time of all, since there could well be elements determined to frustrate any agreement. At the airport, and by now it must have been close to midnight, we were pushed off the buses, the blindfolds ripped off, and forced to walk and run a gauntlet of shouting and pushing militants, determined to have their last word of abuse of the hostages. But there was the ramp, leading up to a plane, one of two Algerian aircraft, and there in that plane assembled 52 wildly happy Americans, embracing each other, moving up and down the aisle, talking, laughing, shouting, unable to sit more than a few moments, a scene almost incredible, except that it was real, very real.
As we entered the cabin, however, the first person to greet us was the Swiss Ambassador, Erik Lang, who with one of his staff was meticulously recording the name of each and every one of us as we appeared, the Swiss determined not to leave the plane until they were absolutely sure we were all accounted for. On board too was the Algerian Ambassador to Washington, the Governor of the Algerian Central Bank, and of course a full staff of air attendants and the pilots, all of whom were equally excited and determined to reach out to us in every way they conceivably could. It was bedlam and it was noisy and yet there was a perceptible uncertainty still in the air, the plane sitting there for some time before we were finally told, ordered might be a better word, since we were up and down all over the place, to sit and calm down so that the plane could be airborne.
Well, to describe it all would take a book, or perhaps a movie. There were uproarious cheers as we cleared the runway, more when champagne was broken out when we crossed the Turkish border, and then the beginning of a flight to freedom we can never forget, nor can we forget the constant hospitality of that Algerian aircraft’s crew. What beautiful people they were….
Some Parting Thoughts on Those Involved
Let me make some comments about those who guarded us in the Ministry. They were army men, not the student militants; the latter got their hands on us only for the last several weeks. Some of the soldiers were zealous revolutionary types, but most were pretty bored with the whole thing. Some were anxious to practice their English and talked at every opportunity they had. Some we liked very much. We were cared for in terms of food and toilet access by the regulars in the Ministry kitchen on that floor, and these were older Iranians, long on duty in the building, and most were fed up with the revolution. They became our friends, and I look back on some of them with real affection.
I remember too the other chiefs of mission in Tehran who got in to see us occasionally, especially the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador in the city. He was allowed in to see us on both Christmases and on Easter. He was the embodiment of the best in Christian virtue and humility and comradeship and, not least, faith — faith in our future, faith in prayer, and hope and optimism. He was magnificent. We felt his love and faith more than that from anyone else on the outside. I will always remember him with affection. Unfortunately he died after we came home and before any of us could convey to him personally how grateful we all were.
And of course there were my two cellmates, Victor Tomseth and Michael Howland. My respect for them is deep indeed. I could not have been kept in such close quarters with better companions. Mike, always reminding me and Vic of the importance of keeping physically fit and always alert to any opportunity to escape, however hopeless it seemed. And Vic, who had been my deputy in the embassy and knew Iran better than any of us…. I should note also the two women hostages, Ann Swift and Kate Koob, who clearly handled themselves with distinction and courage. Indeed all of my colleagues, in my view, endured that crisis with distinction and stood tall, with only one or two occasional exceptions.…
Given the kind of treatment they suffered with, the way they survived and coped with that atmosphere, with the isolation, with the way they were bound and particularly at the beginning the way they were denied the right to talk to each other, didn’t have enough food most of the time, their performance was remarkable. They fully deserved and earned the award for valor that each of them received.