The Iran Project

Hostages and Captors: 20 Years Later

By Reese Erlich

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The 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran traumatized the American hostages and the American nation. But the with passage of time, at least some of the hostages and their captors have come to closure about the incident. Some now share a common hope for a democratic Iran. Most of the former students who seized the embassy are today fighting against Iranian conservatives and for democratic reform. Producer Reese Erlich gathered material for this story in New York and Tehran.

BARRY ROSEN: I spent most of my life in New York, New York City and New York State.

REESE ERLICH: Barry Rosen grew up in a middle class Jewish family.

BARRY ROSEN: My first foreign experience in my entire life happened to be as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran in 1967 to 1969. So I was a Brooklyn boy, actually, totally out of my element landing up in Iran and I really loved it. It was a place that I really felt that it was my second home and in many ways I still do.

MASSOUMEH EBTEKAR: My father was studying in the University of Pennsylvania for his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

ERLICH: Massoumeh Ebtekar was born in Tehran but spent part of her childhood in a suburb of Philadelphia.

MASSOUMEH EBTEKAR: I have memories of going to school there. I had very, very good friends in the school that I went to there. Of course this was as a child in elementary school.

ERLICH: Fast-forward a few years. In 1979, Rosen as press officer at the US Embassy in Tehran, Ebtekar is enrolled as a first year student at Tehran's Polytechnic Institute. They didn't know each other, not yet.

(Shouts from students)

For over twenty-five years, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had run a brutal dictatorship in Iran backed by the US government. In early 1979, the Shah fled Iran in the face of a popular uprising of Muslims, Nationalists and Leftists. They were united in a hatred of the Shah and of what they saw as US domination of Iran. Some in the Shah's military fought to stay in power.

(Gunfire and shouting in the streets)

NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The most incredible thing is that after each fusillade of bullets, these people are returning to this square. You can hear the shooting right now. They've been telling us for weeks they're willing to put their lives on the line and that's exactly what they're doing.

ERLICH: The popular uprising triumphed and an Islamic government came to power. In October 1979, President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to enter the US to receive medical treatment. Many Iranians believed the US was planning to restore the Shah's rule. On November 4th, Muslim students stormed the US Embassy in protest of Carter's actions. Massoumeh Ebtekar became their press spokesperson. The western media called her "Tehran Mary."

MASSOUMEH EBTEKAR: The marines, they were shocked to see, you know, a group of students coming in like this and maybe initially they didn't think that these people were organized.

BARRY ROSEN: They had pictures of Khomeini pinned to their shirts and their sweaters and they had clubs our guards seemed to disappear. They came directly to my office, which was very close to the gate. In a very foolish way I said, "Look, um, this is American property and you have to exit this place." (Laughs) I figured, well you know, what can I lose I'm in deep trouble already. And the Iranians said you know, told me to shut up in Farsi and they held an automatic weapon against my head.

MASSOUMEH EBTEKAR: Initially, everybody thought that it wouldn't take more than a couple days, maybe a couple hours.

ERLICH: The students assumed that Iranian police would quickly remove them from the Embassy but Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutions top leader, saw an opportunity to humble the US government while garnering popular support at home. He backed the Embassy take-over.

(Shouting at Embassy)

BARRY ROSEN: It started to rain harder and harder and I felt that it had a certain symbolism to it all, you know, my life was getting bleaker and bleaker and I didn't know if I was going to live at all, or if I was marching toward an execution. We were tied hand and foot. They would take some of the cord from drapes and tie you up. I was forced to sleep bound hand and foot for several days. They were so frightened of us. They thought that we were all members of the CIA and they had seen many motion pictures of James Bond over the years so they were frightened and they thought that we were supermen. There were moments when the Iranians did interrogate us and there were moments when they would put guns to your head and count from 10 to 1 and say either answer or we'll shoot you.

ERLICH: Rosen said after a few weeks their physical conditions got better but the hostages were to endure 444 days of mental anguish. Sometimes held in dank cellars and prisons. Even today, however, Ebtekar doesn't apologize for that treatment.

MASSOUMEH EBTEKAR: It's a matter of collective rights, individual rights, it's very difficult to compare the suffering that the Iranian nation felt during fifty years of foreign domination. And comparing that with the sufferings, or the pain that they may have faced during these days.

ERLICH: Abbas Abdi, one of the main leaders of the Embassy take-over, says the hostage's treatment flowed from a kind of violence that American taught Iran for nearly 30 years.

ABBAS ABDI: Somebody asked us, well why did you occupy the Embassy. Why did you take those people hostage? We say well, we were raised by you. We were trained by you.

(Persian music)

ERLICH: Ayatollah Khomeini and his conservative supporters used the hostage crisis to consolidate power. They established an authoritarian Islamic State that imprisoned, tortured and killed opponents. In the 1980's, Iran also fought a bitter eight-year war with Iraq. It devastated Iran's economy. By the 1990's, Iranians were ready for change.

(Persian music)

The former captors became leading advocates of political reform. They wanted an Islamic government and continued to oppose US domination of Iran. But they also opposed government corruption and the growing gap between rich and poor. Former student leader, Abbas Abdi says his ideas about Iran's revolution matured.

ABBAS ABDI: At the time of the shock, our picture, our image of a democratic system was not a very realistic one. Obviously people who live in this, under this despotic regime may aspire and wish for democratic regime but the image that they have of that regime may be a variation of that same despotic regime.

ERLICH: Abdi, Ebtekar and other former student leaders strongly supported reformist, Mohammad Khatami when he was elected president in 1997. Later that year, relishing the relative freedom of the new administration, Abdi flew to Paris to meet with Barry Rosen. The meeting was heavily covered in the Iranian media.

BARRY ROSEN: I didn't know if I could forgive. I don't forget what went on. I will never forget that but as soon as we met each other, and that was over dinner, we started to talk and it's as if everything melted away. We still had different points of view but Abbas Abdi right now is a man who's fighting for some law and order in Iran, to build a democratic system within the country.

ERLICH: In private meetings, Rosen and Abdi reconciled themselves on a personal level but the rendezvous did nothing to warm up relations between the US and Iranian governments.

(Persian music)

Today, Barry Rosen is an administrator at Columbia University's Teachers College. Massoumeh Ebtekar is a Vice President of Iran in charge of environmental affairs. Abbas Abdi heads a research institute in Iran.

In a sense, Rosen has exchanged rolls with his two former captors. He no longer feels the pressure of being an Embassy spokesperson but Epticar and Abdi face tremendous responsibilities as prominent political reformers in Iran. Today, says Rosen, people like Abdi are fighting the up-hill battle.

BARRY ROSEN: I'm almost sure the regime is on his back all the time. I feel very close to the man in many ways cause he's going through a lot of difficulty right now and I remember when I said goodbye to him when he was going back to Tehran, I said, be careful. I was worried about him.

ERLICH: Rosen says, when the time is right, he'd like to return to Iran with the other former hostages to hold discussions with Iranian leaders. That, he says, would be the final closure for an incident that traumatized him and the two nations.

BARRY ROSEN: If we could be there, anything can happen.

ERLICH: For the Iran project, I'm Reese Erlich.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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