The Iran Hostage Crisis — “I had very little faith in my government protecting me”
On November 4, 1979, some 3000 radical Iranian students protested at the U.S. embassy. The embassy had been taken over earlier in the year but the problem was resolved quickly leading most to believe this situation would be similar. People were angry over President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow the Shah of Iran, who had been forced out of Iran earlier amidst widespread discontent over his reign, into the United States’ for medical treatment. What was expected to be a short demonstration turned into a 444-day-long hostage crisis.
Michael Metrinko, a political officer in Iran at the time, was fooled into being at the embassy at the time of the takeover. He spent most of his fourteen months as a hostage in solitary confinement. With little faith in the U.S. government rescuing him, he did what he could to maintain sanity and stay alive, including a strenuous exercise regimen and mouthing off to his captors.
Metrinko was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 1999. Here are the accounts of hostage John Limbert, who tried to calm the mob down but which ended up backfiring spectacularly, and Chargé Bruce Laingen, who spent most of his captivity at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Kathleen Stafford recounts her experience, the basis for the movie Argo.
You can also read about when Metrinko helped investigate the U.S. bombing of an Afghan wedding in 2002.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be in your own home by midnight tonight”
METRINKO: What happened November 4, 1979? I generally got into the embassy late because I would go out every night. And when I went out every night, I would not get home until 12 or one o’clock in the morning. There was an understanding that I was going to be out every night. I was one of the few people that was going out, but I was also seeing a whole wide range of people who were useful to the embassy, for reporting or to get things done.
The afternoon before the 4th — it must have been the 3rd — I had been contacted by two of Ayatollah Taleghani’s [at left] sons saying they wanted to meet me the next morning at the embassy, would I please be there. And I told them that I wouldn’t be able to get there until quite a bit later, around 11 o’clock or so, and they were insistent they had to see me earlier in the morning because they were leaving the next day or the day after to see Yasser Arafat and they wanted to talk to me before they went there. And this was logical, knowing these two people, so I agreed to be there early in the morning.
I was set up for a meeting in the morning, a lunch in the afternoon, dinner in the evening, etc. — all with either bona fide officials or former officials or wannabe officials. And I was in my office waiting for my friends to call. I noticed that there was a tremendous amount of activity around the embassy. And that’s when the embassy started to notice it too, in general.
The noise level had just picked up considerably, and when we looked out we could see lots of heads. And suddenly the heads were coming over the walls. And that was that. We grouped people who were in the chancery building or could get to the chancery building. When I got to the main floor, people were at the doors. I was already up on the Ambassador’s floor, up to my office floor, people got up to that floor. And then, it was a matter of battening down the hatches.
We did not start to destroy files. It was far too much to destroy anyway. I do not know what time the communicators started, but I was part of the group in the Ambassador’s office, a large group, some discipline, not a tremendous amount. The Chargé [Bruce Laingen], his deputy, Vic Tomseth, the RSO [Regional Security Officer], Mike Howland, were gone, so there was some confusion over who was in charge. More and more noise outside. I picked up the phone at one point because the phone lines were still working. We were on the phone with Bruce Laingen, who was trying to give orders from the Foreign Minister’s office, saying Khomeini had ordered that the protest be broken up immediately and that there were people on the way to help us, just to hang tight.
We were hanging tight, and it became clearer that they were going to have trouble getting through because the crowds were really getting noisy and things were breaking outside.
I picked up the phone, dialed the number of my revolutionary friend who had asked me to be at the meeting, and got his security guard, whom I also knew quite well, on the phone.
I told him I just wanted to speak to Mehdi, and he was silent for a moment, and then he said, “Michael, Mehdi won’t come to the telephone.” And I said, “You know what’s happening here at the embassy, where I’ve been waiting for Mehdi to come.”
He said, “Yes, we know.” And I realized then that they had set me up to be there.
So I just said, “Okay, I guess this is goodbye.” And then he said, “Michael, I’m really sorry” (this is the security guard), and that was that.
What happened then, one of our RSOs went outside, despite recommendations that he not do so, and then shortly thereafter he wanted us to open the doors and let them in because they said they were going to kill him if we didn’t. He had gone out thinking he could talk to the mob of a couple of thousand people, using mid-American English and no sense at all of Iran, Iranians, or anything that was happening.
He was going to go out there and, “I am the American diplomat. You are breaking the Geneva Convention.”…
Q: Well, what was the reaction within your group?
METRINKO: “Oh, shit.”…
Q: Was the general feeling of “We’ll be taken, and then this will be taken care of eventually?”
METRINKO: Yes, taken, and it will be taken care of because the government is going to come back in and break this up again. And in fact, the captors, the “students” — so-called — that had arranged all this, also believed it was going to be a one-day event. They told us that at the time, some of the more pleasant ones. They said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be in your own home by midnight tonight.” And in later years, as they talked about it, giving interviews about it, they still say that, that they had planned that this was going to be a quickie, just to show the world that they could do it. And instead, so much solidarity cropped up for them, then Khomeini suddenly supported them, that they stayed, and that was that….
“That guy was an idiot, and I could cheerfully have killed him”
Well, I got singled out fairly quickly. I did not tell anyone in the group, and they had no reason to know, at least initially, that I could speak Persian. I had learned my lesson in Tabriz. You do not tell captors your entire life story and what languages you speak as soon as you meet them. In fact, you hope you can never tell them. We were taken to the Ambassador’s residence first, held for a while there, kept tied up.…
By the second day, I was taken over to the cafeteria area, where they had mattresses spread out on the floor. We were placed on mattresses, sort of forced to sit and sleep on the mattress, and at one point the group of students walked in and went up to somebody and started speaking to him in Persian.
They were going from bed to bed. One of my embassy colleagues blurted out, “I don’t speak Farsi. Ask Metrinko. He speaks Farsi really well.” And they came over and hauled me away, and I never saw anybody again for many months. The fact that you’re a Foreign Service officer doesn’t stop you from being an idiot necessarily. That guy was an idiot, and I could cheerfully have killed him.
But… then that was it. I went to solitary, and they purposely tried to separate the ones who spoke Persian and also the ones who were the heads of offices in the embassy. That was that. I went to solitary on November 6th and came out sometime in May for the first time, briefly.
Initially, for the first month or two, [there was] a lot of interrogation. Who do you know? What did you do? Who did you talk to? Who said what to who? I had to give them information about figures that were public revolutionary figures. I knew this or that minister. I knew the deputy Prime Minister. I knew the head of this office. I knew the head of that office. And I could talk about things like that. But that was about it. And we’d just go on repeating and repeating and repeating those questions. They weren’t very professional….
[F]irst they ordered me to open up my safe in my office, and I did that. If someone’s pointing a gun at you and telling you to open up an office safe — it encourages you. Besides, the break-in time for one of these safes is approximately three minutes anyway, so… I just saved them the trouble. Luckily, I had very little in my safe, per se, but of course had a lot of stuff written in other people’s safes. They had my list of phone numbers from the office, but luckily, the ones in the office were very, very standard professional contacts – Ministry of Foreign Affairs people, other people, the ministry’s office numbers. And the ones in the house they had not gotten.
I found out much, much later, several years later, that a friend of mine, hearing over the radio the news about what was happening at the embassy, had immediately rushed to my house, gone inside, and removed every piece of paper to be found in my apartment. It was somebody who knew my apartment well. All the paper that was in the house, including lists of friends, not lists, but telephone numbers, things like that, was removed from my house and destroyed. And that probably saved a number of people’s lives. It certainly saved a fair amount of discomfort for people…. The friend who went there, I think, went there assuming, as was correct, that his name was in the house and wanted to make sure that he didn’t get into trouble.
“I was doing a thousand sit-ups a day”
Q: Well, what was your impression of your interrogators?
METRINKO: Oh, very idealistic, not too bright, not bright in the sense of having had practical experience — just sort of know-it-all students, people who were sure that their point of view was the only point of view in the world and that everything you may have done was wrong. But by this point I was used to that attitude on the part of Iranians. I had already gone through the year and a half of listening to similar people — and not well rounded, not well educated by anyone’s standards, and fanatic. That’s a dangerous combination.
Q: Were they trying to extract information or were they trying to indoctrinate you?
METRINKO: No indoctrination, no. They knew I was a lost cause. They were trying to extract information, especially about revolutionary officials who they think might have been collaborating with us in the embassy. So I think I must have mentioned the name of every revolutionary official I could think of. “Oh, yes, he was educated in the United States. Ha, ha.”
I was throwing them as many bones from their own ranks as I could possibly throw up, and each of them had I met with. “Oh, I know the deputy Prime Minister, yes… Khomeini’s son-in-law, yes.”
It went through several phases. I was initially kept inside the embassy, taken from room to room depending on what they were doing with the rooms. I ended up spending quite a bit of time in small, semi-closet area in the basement of the embassy. Initially, when they had larger rooms, I would have a guard who would sit there with a gun trained on me. I always thought that was a bit stupid. Of course, they were also very careful.
Gradually they stopped doing that and just kept us locked in the rooms with guards outside in the hallways, which was, of course, a lot more sensible. To leave the rooms to go to the bathroom you had to [be] blindfolded. The first time I got out of the embassy was springtime, so from the period of November until roughly March or April I was locked up in a room with no windows.
I got by by doing a tremendous amount of physical exercise. When I say that, I mean a really tremendous amount of physical exercise. I was doing a thousand sit-ups a day. I’d run in place for two or three hours. And I would do this all day long every day because I had to get tired enough to fall asleep. Otherwise you don’t sleep.
Food was no problem. They always fed us, even when it was only bread and cheese, the people were always fed. Hygiene was a problem in the sense that, well, we had the embassy bathrooms to use. They were kept clean because we cleaned them. I would volunteer for bathroom-cleaning duty just to get myself out of my room. I never saw anybody else all that time. Occasionally we’d hear a voice, and that would be that. Other than that, I could, much of the time, probably three-quarters of the time that I was there, have books. And that was fine. I would read, exercise, read for an hour, stand up, run in place for an hour, or some sort of exercise….
They were changing their composition because people would disappear from the guard group. I know from the history that I read later, that they purged members of the takeover group, that the Mujahidin, for example, that were involved in it, were rapidly thrown out of it or rapidly dropped out of it. I don’t think it was ever a Mujahidin plot to take the embassy. There were a couple of people who were in the Mujahidin who were involved with it or took part in it as activists, but I don’t think it was a Mujahidin plot to do this at all. We know the leaders of this takeover group, and none of them have Mujahidin connections….
[T]hey’re in power right now. [Fifth President of Iran, from 1997 to 2005 Mohammad] Khatami, the great liberal hope of the United States, has them all as his trusted advisers, which is something the State Department refuses to think about, that his first vice-president was the spokeswoman for the group – Mary Ebtekar – who likes not to think about it or talk about it much today, but there was this great touting by human rights groups and women’s groups that said, “Oh, he’s appointed a woman as his vice president.” Yes, she is. She was also one of the ringleaders of this group.
Other people closely tied to Khatami — in fact, the ringleaders of the student group are all closely tied to Khatami today, which has always led me to question what he was doing back then, and that’s something that people simply refuse to think about.…
“I had, and continue to have, very little faith in my government protecting me”
I never blamed the U.S. Government. You can’t blame the U.S. Government. I wouldn’t. The U.S. Government was us. I was the U.S. Government. I could blame myself for lack of prescience. I could look back and say, “Gee, if I’d only stayed in Germany longer on my vacation, I wouldn’t be here. Gee, if I had only gone off to such-and-such a place, I wouldn’t be here.”
But, you know, a revolution is an act of nature. In fact, it would be the “perfect storm.” You can’t figure nature. A revolution is natural; it occurs in politics – not all the time, but as a cataclysmic event which, when you’re involved in it, you cannot reflect. It was there. It’s happening. You can lay back and enjoy it; you can go with it, hope to survive it, but you can’t stop it, and you can’t sit back and say, “Gee, if only I had done this,” or “Why doesn’t my government do that?”
I knew my government. And I also knew all the various conflicting trends of thought about how to deal with the revolution that we were going through in Washington. I also had, and continue to have, very little faith in my government, in the sense of protecting me. So I had no expectation that it would. I remembered very, very clearly from junior officer training, we had been told that if we were taken hostage, the government would not deal with hostage takers. It would do what it could, but basically we were going to be on our own. And there would be no attempt to buy us out or to deal with hostage-takers, no bargaining with them. Therefore, I was in that situation. I did not expect the government to do anything….
I didn’t have to sit around and keep hoping. In fact, I kind of expected — I mean I really did — that someday some American consul would walk in and say he was the consular officer from the American embassy and was paying a consular visit. I had that little faith….
May was when the incident in Tabas occurred, when Americans were killed trying to rescue us in one of the most stupidly planned, botched up military-political escapades of the season — unworkable, unwinnable, and if they had succeeded, we would have been dead. So I’m really glad that it ended in Tabas. [At left, wreckage from the April 27, 1980 aborted American commando raid to free U.S. Embassy hostages]
It could not have gotten us out. But having said that… What happened is that they came into my cell one day and said, “Pack your things, you’re being moved.” Eventually I packed my things, and that consisted of putting things into a little, tiny bag. I think I had an extra shirt, an extra pair of underpants.
I put them into a bag, and they came back to my room a while later, blindfolded me, put sort of these heavy plastic restraints on my hands, led me out, and put me in the back of a van, lying on the floor of the van. And there were other people lying there next to me. We were not allowed to talk. And we started to move. I was on the floor of the van, bouncing around for a couple of hours.
We got to a different place, and they led me out, blindfolded again, from the van, took me into a building. Various doors slammed and shut and opened and closed. You’d hear voices. And eventually, they sat me down, took off my blindfold, took off my restraints, I looked around, and I was with two other people in the room, neither of whom I recognized.
We were, as it turned out, in a former SAVAK [Iranian secret police] prison in the city of Qom, and we had no idea who they were at first, and it was the first time that I had talked to an American since November. So it took a while to start speaking English again, which I hadn’t spoken since November, either. But when I found out who they were, fine. In fact, I had met one of them a couple of times. The other one I had met, I think, just when he was introduced at a country team meeting [the Ambassador’s weekly staff meeting with representatives from the Embassy’s various sections and agencies] and never seen again. But we lived together for the next month or two.
I’m not sure how long I stayed in Qom. I knew it was Qom. They didn’t want to tell us where we were, but I figured it out because I could hear a train in the distance the first evening, and I knew that Qom was on a railroad track, and when I tasted the water I knew that we weren’t in Teheran any more. Water in Iran has very distinct tastes depending on the city you’re in. The water of Qom is infamous because it tastes like salt water. It’s very brackish. Tea and coffee made in Qom are almost undrinkable because the water is so salty. When I had some water I knew immediately that we had to be in Qom or somewhere near there.
Q: So what did you all do?
METRINKO: Talked. I hadn’t spoken English in so long I could hardly get the words out.
They had been in group rooms. They had each had a couple of roommates. They told me about what had happened to various people they knew, various incidents that had occurred, things like that, how various people were doing that they knew of or had seen as roommates were changed, as cellmates were changed. There were some people with whom we had no contact at all, nobody knew….
The interrogations were over, yes, except for one that I had later. When was it? I guess I had one last interrogation a couple of months after the others when they had gone through one of my reports and I had reported on a conversation with someone who was a pilot for revolutionary officials, and they had arrested him. They brought him in, and they had us in for a joint interrogation in front of the hostage-takers’ mullah, Khoeiniha. Khoeiniha was the spiritual leader of the student group, and he was also a little bit crazy then. He has become sort of a spiritual mentor for Khatami now. Now, of course, he’s a laid-back liberal. At the time, he was more obviously a total bastard. Today it’s no longer politic to be one.
Well… I tried insulting him, which I guess worked, and they eventually led me away. He was a little bit crazy. He sat there the whole time digging a fork into the palm of his hand. He had a sharp fork, and he was just digging his hand down on the fork. This was bizarre.
Oops, Wrong Group
The endgame was lots of sitting around. And my roommates got changed once in Qom, so I got to talk to somebody else. I heard about other people, fine. We were then taken away from Qom – this was the time people were spread out all across the country — brought back to Teheran, and originally to what was called the Ghasr Prison or also was known by the name of the Komiteh Prison, although it had nothing to do with the komitehs that were formed after the Revolution. The Komiteh Prison was the name given to it a long time before.
It was a prison that had been built by Germans in the reign of Shah Reza. It was a rather unpleasant prison, built as a real prison, the first time I was in a real, real prison with prison cells and little apertures and no windows, just apertures for air, which were always open. And you could hear screaming and things like that at night where people were being tortured, because there were lots of Iranians in prison with us at the same time. I met with the former commander of the prison, actually, whose son-in-law owns a grocery store here. I met him a couple of years ago. He was visiting his son-in-law. Lots of Iranians come to the United States.
I was there, had a cellmate there. I was taken away from there up to Evin Prison (at left), went back into solitary. That was in Evin. I have no idea today how many weeks or months I spent in each place. I once calculated that out of the entire time I was, 14 months, I spent approximately 10 months in solitary. But I went from there to Evin, got thrown out of Evin once and sent back to solitary to a punishment cell there.
It was wintertime in Evin. Evin is in the northern part of the city of Teheran. It’s very cold. My cell was excruciatingly cold. If you were just sitting or standing, you can’t warm up. I could sit there with a blanket around me, but it was cold. It was below freezing, especially at night. We had no heat. This was already after the Iraq War had started. But one day I was really, really cold. I had been told that the guards also had no heat, that they didn’t have any way to stay warm either and there was nothing that anybody could do about this. Conditions were harsh all over the country.
Fine, I could accept that, except one day when I was going out to the bathroom, they were leading me out blindfolded; I brushed up against a stove that was on, a heater. And I immediately knew it was a heater, and I just started to go on and on about Islam and the bastards they were — they knew nothing about religion, and they were liars, and what they could do with their imam, and everything else.
They threw me back in my cell, and a little while later a couple of the leaders of the group came in — they were called in from the outside — and they said the guards were refusing to deal with me anymore because of my attitude, and they took me back down to Komiteh Prison, at night in a car, blindfolded, and put me in a cell, just on a concrete floor with nothing else for about two weeks. And I was on bread and water for about two weeks. It was quite interesting. Then they brought me back later to Evin….
It ended when the United States, I guess, finally got its act together. We had an election in the United States, which allowed the Iranians an out. Do I believe that the release of us was delayed on purpose so that the election would take place? Yes, I do. I also believe that some Americans conspired in this. Yes, I do. I heard about it fairly early on, back in ’81, shortly after I got out.
The last days? Let’s see, it must have been… when was that… I’m trying to think now. Where was I by Christmas? I guess in December… Yes, it would have been December. I was still in solitary up in Evin. I was taken from Evin to a building which… Oh, I might say, in Evin for the first time I got see other prisoners.
I was allowed to talk occasionally to Colonel Holland, Lee Holland, who was in a cell next to mine. They would take me in there to sit with him for a while. He had a slightly larger cell than I did. And that was fine. We could sit and chat. And also they would take us out for exercise in the yard, and we could see each other. They would let us walk in a circle in the yard just to get fresh air, and I could see several of the people who were in the same prison block that I was in.
And it’s funny, a friend – I think it was Anne Swift, who was up in that prison block, too, as one of the two women left – her reaction was exactly the same as mine. She was really, really glad to be able to get the exercise finally, until she realized the group she was in with – and I looked around and had the same reaction – I looked out and saw, hmm, the military attaché, hmm, the head of Station [CIA] — oops.
Why aren’t I with the lower-ranking ones somewhere? I’d rather not be in this select crowd…
“Shut up yourself, you son of a Persian prostitute!”
Well, we were removed, I was removed from Evin, taken to a building which, as I found out later, was the former guest house of the Prime Minister. They had put bars and sort of iron grates, not planks, large pieces of flat iron or steel, over the windows, but the furnishings were all the original rococo sort of “Louis-the-Bastard”-type French stuff that had been there while the Prime Minister’s guests were using it. It had an absolutely beautiful bathroom – I’ll never forget it — lined floor to ceiling with dark red marble. It was like bathing in Caligula’s tomb. But I was there with Dave Roeder, the Air Force attaché, who had been my cellmate off and on. Dave’s a good guy. And then we started getting visits — Algerian diplomats, for example, and others….
You know, not saying very much, and they weren’t supposed to talk to us very much, other than to inquire about our health. And then we were all led, one by one, over for a final televised interview with Mary Ebtekar (at right), who is now a vice president of Iran. We didn’t get along either. They never showed me on TV because whenever a TV camera got trained on me during one of these meetings, I would say things to make it impossible to show me. And she wanted me to say that I’d been treated very well, we’d had a good time there, etc., etc.
I told her in un-nice terms to buzz off. But other than that, more and more visits. And the guards were becoming “friendlier,” as in, “Gee, hasn’t this been swell,” and “Aren’t you glad you’re going home?” and “You’ll be going home very shortly” — that type of thing.
I will say that one of the guards even gave me a copy of Time Magazine or parts of Time Magazine, and that’s when I discovered that Ronald Reagan was now the President of the United States. He had been elected President. And I immediately assumed it was Soviet disinformation. I did not believe it. It just has to be disinformation — sort of a Mad Magazine version of Time.
And then, well, it was almost over. I had trouble over actually leaving the guest house. And so I missed the ride out to the airplane. When we were being put on the bus, I was led back to my seat, and I was trying very hard to be correct because it was an important time. I knew I was in a bus because I could tell I was walking down a bus aisle — you know, the sides of the chairs.
And I was put in a seat in the bus, and I could sense the bus was filling up. I could hear them coming, bodies moving around. Two of the Americans behind me started to whisper to each other.
One of them said, “Where do you think they’re taking us? Are we really going?” Something like that. And the other one started to reply, and one of the guards yelled out, “American, shut up!”
And then he said, in Persian, an insulting reference to Americans.
And so in Persian, I simply replied in a loud voice, “Shut up yourself, you son of a Persian prostitute!”
And they pulled me off the bus, and the bus left. And they beat me up a little bit, and that was fine, except then they realized that they had me, and I realized the bus had gone, too.
It had been very stupid of me. I had just been pushed. I reacted. And eventually they sent me out to the airport in a Mercedes-Benz, which is actually the only way to leave Iran.