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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK
Former Iran captive counsels caution
With the United States at loggerheads with Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme, the BBC's Jamie Coomarasamy meets an American with personal - and painful - memories of the country.

Richard Morefield's experience is the prism through which a whole generation of Americans perceives Iran.

Blindfolded US hostage with Iranian student captor, 1979
The hostage crisis is seared into the American imagination
"I arrived on 29 July 1979. We re-opened the consular section on 9 September - my 50th birthday.

"Less than two months later, the embassy was taken by the militants."

Mr Morefield was one of the 52 American hostages held for over a year at the US Embassy in Tehran until their release in early 1981.

It was a traumatic experience for the nation at large - as well as for the Morefields.

But, he believes, it is one from which he has moved on.

"There's a difference between feeling bitter against the militant students who held me captive and put me through three mock executions and the Iranian people.

"There are two Iranian families who live in this neighbourhood here. I cannot equate what I know of Iran and its culture with the militant students who held me for 444 days."

Old emotions

More than a quarter of a century later, it is still hard for Richard Morefield and his wife Dottie to watch the old news footage of his time held hostage, which they have archived so carefully.

"It brings back a lot of the emotions. It was such a tough time - such a difficult time," she says.

Women in chadors look in at the US Embassy in Tehran, 1979
Few Americans think beyond old images of Iran, Morefield says
But Mr Morefield thinks his countrymen need to step back from the images of Americans in captivity and take a more considered look at the country which has found itself on President Bush's axis of evil:

"Most Americans, if they would shut their eyes and try to visualise an Iranian, they would probably visualise a man with a beard - a scrubby beard - and a woman in a chador.

"Iran is far more than that. It is a society with a lot of different groups which can contribute to a new modern Iran if they're given the chance."

Views today

To see how modern Iran is perceived by Americans who follow the situation there rather less closely than the Morefields, I go down the road to the local shopping mall.

It is one of those anonymous collections of stores you can find pretty much anywhere in this country - and the views here are probably as representative as any of US public opinion.

And what I find is this: As people here try to digest the diplomatic manoeuvring over Iran's nuclear programme, their concerns about the future are coloured by memories of the past.

"There's history that we have to carry with us and that history lives just up the street. But I'm only worried about it if the rhetoric continues to escalate on both sides," a woman says.

Richard Morefield at a 2005 ceremony to honour American troops who died trying to rescue the hostages
With what's going on in Iran at the moment, we may not have a long, long time
Richard Morefield
I ask a man what - apart from all the diplomatic stuff you hear - he knows about Iran and Iranians?

"Well, they definitely seem a little more moderate than they were in the '80s when you had the ayatollah and the shah. But they definitely want to enrich uranium and start a nuclear programme and you have to wonder why," he replies.

And as the diplomatic tensions grow, the former hostage cannot help seeing the parallels with his situation:

"When you look at how the Iranians are negotiating today, you need to go back and see how they negotiated over us. They're very, very hard bargainers.

"They're very much like in the bazaar mentality - when you put something down on the table, they say 'OK, fine, and what else are you going to give me?'"

One thing the Iranians haven't given him to this day is any compensation, despite a protracted legal battle.

His wife Dottie believes that shows that successive US governments have taken their diplomatic eye off the ball - with potentially worrying consequences:

"I think Iran has always considered us the great Satan. I think that maybe we should have been watching a bit more closely what they were doing.

"They got away with what they did, so I don't think they fear the US in any way."

Question of force

Dottie and Richard Morefield have had plenty of time to digest their experience.

It's a luxury which - Mr Morefield says - the US government does not have.

"One of the problems with trying to find a diplomatic solution is it takes a long, long time and you resolve things like a slice of salami - a little bit at a time.

"Unfortunately with what's going on in Iran at the moment, we may not have a long, long time. But if I had a better answer than that I'd be secretary of state and not a retired service officer."

Does he think, I ask him, that somewhere down the line force will be used?

He pauses for a long moment. Then his reply comes: "God, I hope not."


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