The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Former hostages seize Argo publicity, call for diplomacy with Iran

Two top officials who were held hostage in Tehran in 1979 called Monday for expanded diplomatic outreach to the Iranian government.  The 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture was awarded Sunday evening to the film Argo, which focused on the plight of six Americans who escaped as the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by ...

Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Two top officials who were held hostage in Tehran in 1979 called Monday for expanded diplomatic outreach to the Iranian government. 

The 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture was awarded Sunday evening to the film Argo, which focused on the plight of six Americans who escaped as the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by supporters of the Iranian revolution and sought refuge in the Canadian ambassador's residence. Fifty-two of their State Department colleagues did not escape the embassy and were held hostage by the Iranian revolutionaries for 444 days. Two of those hostages spoke at an event on Capitol Hill Monday and urged the Obama administration to do more to engage Iran.

Two top officials who were held hostage in Tehran in 1979 called Monday for expanded diplomatic outreach to the Iranian government. 

The 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture was awarded Sunday evening to the film Argo, which focused on the plight of six Americans who escaped as the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by supporters of the Iranian revolution and sought refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Fifty-two of their State Department colleagues did not escape the embassy and were held hostage by the Iranian revolutionaries for 444 days. Two of those hostages spoke at an event on Capitol Hill Monday and urged the Obama administration to do more to engage Iran.

"The moment before I stepped into that beautiful Algerian airplane that would carry me, Ambassador Limbert, and 51 of our colleagues home to freedom, I said to the senior Iranian hostage taker who was standing on the ramp of Iran’s Mehrabad Airport, ‘I look forward to the day when your country and mine can again have a normal, diplomatic relationship,’" said Bruce Laingen, who was the chargé d’affaires, then the senior U.S. diplomat in Tehran, when the hostage crisis erupted. "I could not have imagined that more than 32 years later, our countries would still be locked in a hostile cycle of confrontation." 

"Only sustained, robust, and comprehensive diplomacy based on the premise of mutual compromise can break this cycle, which threatens to enflame the region," Laingen said. "And until we have an established channel for communication between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic on the many interests we share, our countries will continue to teeter on the brink of war."

No one should have any illusions about the cruelty and brutality of the Iranian regime, but diplomacy involves dealing with your enemies, Laingen said. He noted that President Jimmy Carter‘s military attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran ended in deadly failure while only negotiations and diplomacy resulted in freedom for him and his fellow victims. 

The movie Argo has reinforced negative views of the Iranian revolution in the minds of Americans, and Iranians are still clinging to their negative views of the United States, which date back to American support of the shah, Laingen said. But both sides need to set aside their grievances and take new steps now, especially at Tuesday’s nuclear talks in Kazakhstan, he said.

"This wall of mistrust cannot be torn down in a day. It won’t be torn down during the talks, when the United States and Iran meet with the other P5+1 delegations in Kazakhstan. My fear is that by the end of the talks tomorrow, there may even be an even higher wall unless both sides are willing to make real compromises," Laingen said.

John Limbert, who was political officer in Tehran in 1979 and later became the first deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran under the Obama administration, said Monday that Americans fail to understand the U.S. role in creating anti-Americanism in Iran and therefore America’s responsibility to strive to repair long-held bilateral animosity.

"Argo highlights the negative attitudes that the two countries have held toward each other for decades. Its brief introduction attempts to provide historical context behind the embassy takeover, but the film does not convey the prevailing Iranian sense of grievance — real or imagined — that led to the 1979 attack, and to the emotional response in the streets of Tehran," Limbert said. "More than three decades later, the same atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and festering wounds dominates Iranian-American relations." 

The two sides have never addressed their basic historical resentment and therefore the P5+1 talks have little chance of achieving a real breakthrough, Limbert said. He argued that the Obama administration has not made any real, substantive offers that would allow Iran to compromise on its nuclear program while saving face.

"The U.S. ‘two-track’ policy of engagement and pressure has — in reality — only one track: multi-lateral and unilateral sanctions, that whatever their stated intention and real effects, are allowing the Iranian government to claim credit for defying an international bully," Limbert said. "The Obama administration has not offered (and perhaps feels it cannot offer) far-reaching sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable Iranian concessions on its nuclear program." 

The United States should propose talks with Iran on a host of issues besides the nuclear program, if nuclear negotiations are not proving useful, Limbert said.

"If the nuclear issue may be just too politically difficult, then sustained negotiations on other issues — still starting small — will be the most effective way to start the countries on a new path of diplomatic engagement after three futile decades of trading insults, threats, and empty slogans," he said. "To move forward, we must stop holding all questions hostage to agreement on the nuclear issue. Such an approach guarantees failure… After all, if we and the Iranians could never agree on anything, Ambassador Laingen and I would still be in Tehran." 

The event was put on by groups including the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the Council for a Livable World, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the National Iranian American Council.

"If two former hostages can call for renewed and sustained relations with the country that held them hostage, it seems it would be an easier trick for Congress and the White House to get on board with a strong diplomatic agenda," said James Lewis, spokesman for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

Tag: Iran

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.