Thirty years ago this month, it was finally over. After 14 months of captivity, 52 of us boarded an Air Algerie jet and took off from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, minutes after Ronald Reagan took the presidential oath. After a brief stop in Algiers, Algeria, and a few days of testing at the U.S. Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, we flew home to rejoin our families and receive a welcome we could only call tumultuous amid a flood of love, speeches and yellow ribbons.
Most of us resumed our government careers. Now almost all are retired and discovering the joys of grandparenthood and senior-citizen discounts. Sadly, a dozen are no longer with us.
It is worth remembering some lessons from the painful events, which, among other things, cost Jimmy Carter his presidency. Here are four:
First, America’s ability to affect events in other countries is limited. We can do harm – as we did in the ill-considered decision to admit the shah in October 1979 – but little else. After the embassy was taken, the Carter administration tried just about everything to influence Iran’s decision-making. Sanctions, pleas, intermediaries and threats had little effect. Eventually it was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself, after the shah died in late July 1980, who resolved the crisis.
Second, negotiation, even with difficult counterparts, can work. The process was long, slow and difficult, but President Carter and his team eventually reached an Algiers agreement for our freedom. The agreement occurred in a setting of profound mistrust, suspicion and hostility and took skilled intermediary work by others, including the Germans and the Algerians.
Third, they got away with it. Although the Iranian population as a whole paid a lofty price for those events, including decades of repression, brutality and war, the authorities in Tehran used the crisis to solidify their power. Today, they continue to proclaim the embassy attack a triumph (over what – centuries of international law and practice that protected all diplomats from kidnapping?). In a bitter irony, the former hostages’ own attempts to seek compensation from those same Iranian authorities have run into stubborn opposition from inside the U.S. government. Officials in Tehran and Washington do not agree on much, but they are united in ensuring that Iran pays no penalty for this outrage.
Fourth, the events continue to cast a heavy shadow over Iranian-American relations. Thirty years later, images of shouting crowds and burning flags still dominate American views of Iran. When we flew out of Tehran in 1981, we predicted that in five or seven years the United States and the Islamic republic would be talking to each other, if not as friends then as two countries with common interests. We were wrong – it hasn’t happened yet. Both sides still glare at each other, and exchanges consist of threats, name-calling and the repetition of sterile slogans. Mutual trust, a critical element of diplomacy, does not exist.
Amidst celebrating our return, there were many who deserved our thanks for their efforts. After 30 years, they still do. These include the brave men of Operation Eagle Claw, eight of whom did not return from a daring rescue attempt in April 1980; Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his colleagues, who protected six Americans in Tehran at considerable risk to themselves and their mission; many of our colleagues throughout the government who continuously worked to keep us safe; and our spouses, children, parents and family members, who endured so much during those dark months. We were in the eye of the storm, but they took its full fury and were the true heroes.
Today is a good time to remember our compatriots who serve their country in uniform and as civilians. Unfortunately, it is once again popular to bash government employees. Those serving today in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – as we did in Tehran 30 years ago – are volunteers in service to our country. America’s public servants deserve respect and support for representing our country in difficult and dangerous places.
John Limbert and Bruce Laingen, career Foreign Service officers who were among the Iran hostages.