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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 November, 2004, 17:55 GMT
Remembering the Iran hostage crisis
Former hostage-taker Ebrahim Asgharzadeh
The traumatic events would have huge repercussions for Iran and the US
Thursday marked the 25th anniversary of the US embassy hostage crisis in Iran.

To commemorate the occasion, BBCPersian.com spoke to two men involved - one an Iranian hostage-taker, the other one of his former captives.

They spoke of the traumatic events of that day and its lasting repercussions, both in their personal lives and for the two countries.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh was one of the masterminds behind the takeover of the US embassy.

Asgharzadeh was 24-years-old and was studying electrical engineering at a university in Tehran. After the crisis he was elected as an MP in 1988 in Tehran, but in the next elections his qualifications were not approved and he could not run again. Later he was arrested for publishing the Salam newspaper which was critical of the government.

He is now the secretary-general of Hambastegi (Unity) Party.

How did you plan the operation for taking over the US embassy and taking its staff hostage?

We did not have an accurate and calculated plan for taking over the embassy. We did not have any plans to take any hostages, either.

We were just a group of students who wanted to stage a protest.

If you want to make any judgement about our measures you should do it within the context of the situation in those days, which was full of tension.

The Cold War era was when there was a big competition between two political camps in the world.

Didn't you see it as inhumane to take people as hostages?

We were not supposed to take hostages. We did not think that our move would turn into a long period of hostage-taking which lasted for 444 days.

What was your aim in taking over the embassy?

We neither thought of the aspects of this move, nor its implications. We only intended to make the world hear our protest.

Our only concern was that this move would be opposed by the Revolution's leader, but when we took over the embassy, everything changed within a few hours.

The leader supported us and many groups of people came to the embassy to express their support, in a way that the future events went out of our control.

We had no choice but to stay in the embassy and to take care of its staff.

How did you treat the hostages?

We had not thought of how to keep the hostages at all.

Iranian student raises fist in defiance in front of posters

We had about 300-350 students and we had very limited facilities.

We did not act professionally and some of the embassy's staff managed to get out through the back door.

We had not even decided about blindfolding them.

I think they realised themselves that we had no plans to capture them. We tried to treat them humanely. But there is no doubt that there was a lot of psychological pressure on them.

How do you think about your move today?

In recent years we tried to make the American people understand that our move was just a reaction against the US intervention in our country.

After every revolution there will be some extremist moves.

The Islamic Revolution has now reached stability and this sort of behaviour should not be repeated in the future.

Former US hostage Bruce Laingen, now 82, was US charge d'affaire in Tehran in 1979. He was seized at the foreign ministry.

Former US hostage and then charge d'affaire, Bruce Laingen
His wife Penne is credited with helping popularise the yellow ribbon that symbolised concern for hostages in those days and now is used by many to show concern for any American abroad in danger.

Mr Laingen is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

What were your first thoughts when the embassy was overtaken?

My first thoughts were ones of obviously surprise, of shock, anger, worry, disdain. All kinds of emotions ran through my mind and the minds of my colleagues during those 444 days.

At first [there was] confidence that it could be set aside by the revolutionary government and the revolutionary leadership.

But increasingly I came to a rapid realisation that I could do nothing to help my colleagues across town. So I lived with that for 444 days.

How were you treated?

Well, the treatment of me in the foreign ministry was better than the treatment of those held in the foreign embassy across the other side of town.

I was held in a room with two of my colleagues, restricted to that space.

I was never physically abused, just denied the fundamental right of freedom.

Eventually I was taken to a prison and spent the last three weeks in solitary confinement, so I got to know what my colleagues had suffered virtually all of the time.

Many of them were held in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

Can you describe it?

Solitary confinement is living alone in the cold.

It was December, January, 1980, 1981, 1982... Living alone in a cell with no light except a dirty window at the top of the cell.

One light, one bulb hanging from the ceiling. Denied the right to do anything except when I needed to go to the bathroom to bang on the door and be blindfolded and be taken down the hall to the bathroom.

It's a very distressing feeling, it makes you doubly angry, it makes you doubly frustrated, your anger with those who are denying you your freedom becomes deeper.

How did being a hostage mark your life?

Obviously, you get over it, if you're fortunate enough to come out alive.

We [the hostages] have little regard for the theocracy that today rules and governs Iran
I make that point because today hostage-taking in Iraq includes beheading, hostage-taking in Beirut included much longer periods of abuse and confinement.

Hostage-taking for many of my colleagues on the other side of the town in the embassy compound meant many of them held for long periods of time in solitary confinement.

I respect them for the way they dealt with that with honour.

Are you in touch with them?

Not regularly, we are not a club.

We see each other occasionally. We have had a lot of contact in the sense that we had a launched a major judicial class action suit against the government of Iran for what they did to us.

Do all of you have the same view of what happened 25 years ago?

Yes we do, we have been united as a group since we were held, even though we could not be physically, together.

Spiritually and mentally we have been together for the whole time.

Laingen [left] shortly after his release with then President Ronald Reagan
Laingen [left] shortly after his release with then President Ronald Reagan
In many ways we are a remarkable group, but we have never been back to Iran. We have never had that opportunity.

We are absolutely totally agreed in this class action suit, that what the Iranian government, and I emphasise government, did to us, the government after all embraced this violent action against us by its own citizens.

Some of the comments by the other hostages are more vindictive.

Sure, obviously. There are still 42 who are alive.

We have different views on Iran [but] all of us have a lot of respect for the people of Iran. We have little regard for the theocracy that today rules and governs there.

Do you think since 9/11 the emotion has become worse towards the incident?

Yes I think that is correct, many of us continue to feel that thought, that in the aftermath of 9/11 [we said]: "My God, it began with us."

What were your wife's views?

She was angry and worried, as were all of the hostage spouses.

All of us who got back from Tehran regard them as the real heroes.

In that crisis, in the way they reported themselves, they way they tried to reach out to us.

My wife did [the yellow ribbon] which of course triggered the way in which American people hang up ribbons for all manner of causes.

It's a symbol, a national symbol in this country of reaching out, of caring for caring for our fellow Americans.

Now the yellow ribbon that was put around the oak tree in my front yard that began this tradition is on permanent display at the library of US Congress.

I am very proud of that and I am very proud of my wife for the role she played.

Iran holds siege anniversary demo
03 Nov 04 |  Middle East
Timeline: US-Iran ties
02 Jan 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Iran
15 Sep 03 |  Country profiles

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