Ex-hostage: Time to build trust with Iran

30 years after U.S.-Iran crisis, former hostage says history must be overcome

January 19, 2011|By Bruce Laingen

It is time, long overdue, to get serious about talking with Iran. Thirty years ago today, this country saw the end of its 444-day vigil with 53 Americans — I was one of them — who had been taken hostage Nov. 4, l979 by militant students in Iran.

Thirty years since that fateful day that saw, that morning, the end of the last formal dialogue with the Islamic Republic. Thirty years that mark the longest gap in relations with another country in the history of American diplomacy. All that with a country and a people with whom America once had a remarkably close and strategically productive relationship.

It is 30 years since I said to the senior hostage taker, Ahmed Azizi, while preparing to board an Algerian plane to freedom, that I looked forward to the day when his country and mine would again have a normal diplomatic relationship. (There was no audible response.)

That day has yet to come. Why? Because two sovereign governments still live with the poisonous legacy of 30 years of mutually corrosive rhetoric and only occasional and never sustained diplomatic efforts by both governments. As a result, the mutual trust that is so critical to any diplomatic engagement is gone. Today, the absence of that trust, given the interests involved for both countries — the nuclear issue being only one of many — makes the need for an open and sustained dialogue among the most compelling foreign policy issues confronting the United States.

Where to begin? At risk of oversimplification, two things need to happen. First, Iran must provide for greater transparency in its assurances to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the international community on its intentions regarding nuclear weapons. Second, the United States must signal its readiness to assure Iran a "seat at the table" in exchanges covering regional arrangements for multilateral security in the Persian Gulf area.

Both will be difficult, but we can begin the first by a sustained resumption of the talks held in Geneva in 2010 between Iran and the "P5+1" — the group of five including the U.S., in the person of Under Secretary of State William Burns. Those talks, designed to get Iran to end further nuclear enrichment, saw only the decision to meet again this month, this time in Istanbul.

A full end to enrichment is not going to happen, given Iranian national pride. A more realistic objective should instead be to get Iran to agree to specified limits on enrichment, accompanied by strict and full controls and inspections agreed with the IAEA. And that will only happen if the P5+1 offers inducements that offer real returns to the Iranians.

We can expect the Iranians to come up with their own variant on the "nuclear swap" proposal, put forward by Brazil and Turkey this past summer, that would see Iran agree to the transfer abroad, either to Russia or Turkey, of a sizeable amount of their low-enriched uranium for fabrication into fuel rods needed for a small research reactor in Tehran. Political reservations within the regime saw that idea founder, but there should be ample room for it to find greater reality at the Istanbul meeting.

Proposals such as this could be seen as meeting Iran's belief that it merits the "seat at the table" that it sees the West (specifically the U.S.) always seeking to deny it. Overtures to Iran can be both direct and indirect — including areas of potential contact on major issues — especially regarding Iran's natural interests in Afghanistan. They could begin by simply authorizing contacts by Americans at diplomatic missions abroad with their Iranian counterparts at such missions, a practice "normal" in diplomatic practice broadly, but not normal for years among American diplomats.

Getting beyond the adverse legacy of a poisonous past in U.S.-Iranian relations may well require a generation. But it must be a major U.S. objective and one that can only begin at the top — on both sides — especially if we are to overcome the conviction of Iran's supreme leader and his entourage that we have never accepted the Islamic Revolution. President Barack Obama has done his part, making it his administration's objective to seek a dialogue based on justice and mutual interests. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reiterated that objective in several recent public statements, especially in December, when she was quoted again as saying that the Iranian regime "has the right to a peaceful nuclear program" and that "the world in turn would benefit from the full participation of the Iranian nation in the political, social and economic life of this region."

Rhetoric of that kind is crucial for the future of American diplomacy in the region. It is no less crucial that it be heard from the Iranian side.

Bruce Laingen, a Bethesda resident, was chief of mission at the American Embassy in Tehran and a hostage during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. His e-mail is Ibplaingen@aol.com.

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