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Iran-U.S. Relations Following the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Aired December 24, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis in Iran, when students seized the U.S. embassy and held diplomats for 444 days. Thirty years later, where do Tehran and Washington go from here?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

The year 1979 brought revolution to Iran, the rise of the Islamic republic, and it set the tone for U.S.-Iranian relations for a generation to come. In January that year, street protests drove out Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And then, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader for millions of Shia Muslims, returned from decades in exile to found the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And on November 4th that year, radical students climbed the walls of the U.S. embassy and paraded its employees before the world. They were furious that U.S. President Jimmy Carter had allowed the Shah into the United States for medical treatment. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations, and they have not yet resumed, as I find out in each of my reporting trips there to the U.S. embassy.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): This is where America first tasted Islamic fundamentalism, when Islamic revolutionary students stormed the embassy and took American diplomats hostage for 444 days. And this set off a wave of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world.


AMANPOUR: So can the relationship recover? For that, and a look back, I'm joined from Tehran by one of the masterminds of the hostage- taking, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh. He later became a reformist member of parliament and has also spent time in jail.

And with me in the studio here, former American hostage John Limbert, author of "Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History," and also former U.S. President Carter's point-man on Iran, national security official Gary Sick.

First to you in Tehran, Mr. Asgharzadeh. Tell me what you remember about that crucial, fateful day, November 4th, 30 years ago?

EBRAHIM ASGHARZADEH, MASTERMIND OF EMBASSY TAKEOVER (through translator): Well, what I remember was that everything was very heavy. There was significant psychological pressure on our society, especially on students. We were not radical students. We were revolutionary students, in the sense that we were defending our country, our people, our nation.

But once the shah was expelled from the country, no country accepted him, because the world public opinion could not accept the behavior of a dictator. That meant that they recognized the Iranian revolution. However, step by step, the Shah brought himself closer to the United States.

And once he entered America, we felt threatened. We felt insulted, our revolution, our people. And so there was a rebellion, and a measure was needed to be taken that was effective that could impact the world public opinion. We needed to do something that could simply affect the world public opinion.

I am not willing to be a hostage of that historical event; I've said that many times. What I would like is to open up to the various dimensions of that historical event. And in my opinion, neither Iran nor the United States should be hijacked by that historical event.

But if they do not pay attention to its history, they will have an unstable future, an impermanent future together. In the respect to their relations, it will be difficult. If it's going to be easy, they have to be realistic and with a look -- a retrospective look.

I believe that what the students did for the first two or three days, it was a student activity, it was meant to protest, something that American students did many times on the streets to protest the Vietnam War.

Student activities have their own special student frameworks, and it is in that framework that they gave you meaning, not within the framework of ideology or fundamentalism. We were not fundamentalists principally. Even our religious outlook about our revolution was very progressive. We thought of democracy and freedom and wanted to defend it.


ASGHARZADEH (through translator): What happened before our eyes was that everything was getting lost, our revolution, our country.


AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, John Limbert. You've heard what -- the person who masterminded and held you captive for 444 days, his perspective through the prism of history. What were you thinking? What happened to you that day?

JOHN LIMBERT, FORMER HOSTAGE IN IRAN: Well, that day, whatever they thought they were doing, whether it was a 1970s-style student sit-in, the results of it were very -- were very different. They brought misery to the Iranian people.

AMANPOUR: But to yourself, to you and the hostages that day.

LIMBERT: To -- to -- to us, what happened to us was difficult. It was frightening. It was -- it was uncomfortable. But it lasted 14 months and was over. But what...

AMANPOUR: Did you think it would last that long?

LIMBERT: Of course not. We thought...

AMANPOUR: What did they say to you?

LIMBERT: We thought this was a 1970s-style student sit-in.

AMANPOUR: As they say.

LIMBERT: As -- as they have in retrospect presented it. What happened -- I don't think -- we certainly didn't expect it to last that long. They have said they didn't expect it to last that long. But what they did, in effect, was to create the climate of lawlessness and mob rule that they and their -- and their compatriots are today the greatest victims.

AMANPOUR: And, Gary Sick, there you were in the White House with President Carter trying to figure out what to do about this. What happened that day when this happened?

GARY SICK, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBER: Well, the -- as you know, the time difference is seven-and-a-half hours with Tehran, and so this was absolutely the middle of the night, so I was awakened, went in, and not to the White House, actually. I went to the State Department, where up on the seventh floor they set up a special room to follow the events. And that room remained, in effect, dedicated to the hostage issue for most of the rest of the time that they were being held.

AMANPOUR: And what was going on through your mind? Did you think that it would be so long?

SICK: We honestly believed, as John said and Mr. Asgharzadeh said, that this was going to be a sit-in, that they were going to make a point about their relations with the shah and so forth, and that then the hostages would be let loose. The people in the embassy had been taken hostage in February and had been released very shortly thereafter.

That's what we expected. And where it changed was when the son of the ayatollah, Khomeini, came to the embassy, climbed over the walls himself with his turban falling off, and pronounced himself in favor of what the -- of what the students were doing. And at that point, it became a government process, not a student process.

AMANPOUR: And it took on a whole life of its own.

SICK: That way it became actually an act of the Iranian government, rather than a group of students who were acting potentially outside the law. Even if people liked what they were doing, they were acting on their own. After that moment, it was then a government process, and the whole rest of the hostage crisis revolved around trying to get the Iranian government to take responsibility for its own actions and end the process.

And John is absolutely correct that this -- the fact that the Iranian government was unwilling and unable to take action meant that the process has cast a shadow on U.S.-Iran relations for the -- for the 30 years since that time.

AMANPOUR: Indeed. Let me ask you, Mr. Asgharzadeh. You've since became a reformist, a member of parliament. I interviewed you in Iran several years ago. Where do you think the relationship between the United States and Iran can go now?

ASGHARZADEH (through translator): I'm glad that Mr. Gary Sick and Mr. Limbert are sitting on this panel with me. I have said many times that if the members of the American embassy were people like Limbert and if the American embassy in Tehran was not so militarized, perhaps the American decision-making in the first few months after Iran's revolution would have been far more positive and better.

Unfortunately, America became too frightened. Mr. Carter defended the Shah until the last minute. Even on Shahrivar 17th, which was around September before the revolution, when people were being killed on the street, Mr. Carter kept defending the Pahlavi regime. And after the revolution happened, he saw that the revolution is principally a very bad thing for America, whereas the religious revolution under no circumstances would have made it towards the Soviet Union, but the White House couldn't understand that.

And so the American behavior, the U.S. behavior, especially that adopted by the American embassy, created a chasm, a wide chasm between Iran and the United States. And once the shah entered America, as Mr. Gary Sick and Mr. Limbert said, that complicated things.


Student activity that was not calculated to run a very long course became very long and prolongated because of two reasons. One was that there was a provisional government in place that fell, a government that held Iran's seat abroad in the United Nations and international forums. It was unable to stay in power.

And, secondly, people came in waves towards the American embassy, which was backed by the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. And as a result, the situation got out of the hands of the students.

And every day that passed on, things got more complicated. The analysis got more complicated in the White House. They lost their cool. They didn't know what to do. And they faced a challenge by the Iranian revolution and this revolutionary thought. And it reached a point where nobody felt prepared to deal with it.

And it seemed like it was tying their hands up. And so after a while, both America and Iran were looking for a solution, because both their hands were tied at that stage, but the solution needed to be such that no country would be seen as the loser. That was essential to us, as well.

AMANPOUR: No country could be seen to be the loser. This seems to have been the dynamic that has ruled Iran and the United States for the last 30 years, and we're going to discuss that when we come back from a break, so stay with us.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Masoumeh Ebtekar would eventually become Iran's first female vice president, pushing for more democracy. But back in 1979, she was the voice of the revolution.

MASOUMEH EBTEKAR, IRAN'S FIRST FEMALE VICE PRESIDENT: These people are spies working in the United States embassy.

We were not terrorists. We were not militia. We had no training, no military training. This was student movement, a genuine student movement. But they knew that they had to take some sort of unconventional steps.

AMANPOUR (on-screen): Unprecedented in the history of global diplomacy.

EBTEKAR: Exactly.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): That unprecedented act was the takeover of the American embassy in the heart of Tehran. The relationship between Iran and the United States has never recovered.


AMANPOUR: And that was from my documentary, "God's Warriors," two years ago. And with me now to continue this discussion, John Limbert, the former U.S. diplomat who was one of the hostages in Tehran, and Columbia University Professor Gary Sick, author of the influential blog on Iran and also in President Carter's National Security Council. And joining me again from Tehran, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the masterminds of that hostage- taking.

I want to ask you, John Limbert, since you just saw Masoumeh Ebtekar, who was the spokesman for the students there, what was your reaction when you heard her just now, personally?

LIMBERT: Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting her actually until the very end -- until the very end. I understand her name is actually Niloufar and not Masoumeh, but after the revolution, of course, people did make some -- did make some changes.


As -- now, whatever it is, what I -- what I'm hearing, Christiane, is an awful lot of rationalization for an act that people know was -- was an ugly act and a -- and an act with very negative consequences for Iran, for Iranians. And as much as they rationalize it, as much as they say, "Well, we were young, we were this, we were that"...

AMANPOUR: But you've just written a book called "Negotiating with Iran" and the ghosts of the past. These are the ghosts of the past. Can you get over them?

LIMBERT: Of course. You need to call in the Ghostbusters and bring - - bring the Ghostbusters in. You know, they -- they -- they put the -- they put the ghosts in the can and put the can in the -- can away. And somehow you've got to do -- you've got to do that. You -- you don't forget them. You don't necessarily even ask for an apology. But you look them in the face, you know them for what they are, which is a very ugly and negative act, and then you put them in their proper compartment.

AMANPOUR: Well, we've got some pictures of you during 1981, when finally you came out of that situation and made the first stop in Germany before coming back to the United States. I believe that's you there with the glasses on.


AMANPOUR: Do you recognize yourself?

LIMBERT: A lot younger.

AMANPOUR: And do you remember what was going through your mind then?

LIMBERT: Very happy to be out.

AMANPOUR: Let me also play -- and I'll go to Gary Sick after this -- my interview with then-reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1998, in which he, for the first time, addressed the issue of what the hostage- taking had done to the American psyche.


MOHAMMAD KHATAMI, FORMER PRESIDENT OF IRAN (through translator): With regard to the hostages issue, which you raised, I do know that the feelings of the great American people have been hurt. And, of course, I regret it.

The events of those days must be viewed within the context of the revolutionary fervor and the pressures to which the Iranian nation was subjected to, causing it to seek a certain way to express its anxieties and concerns.


AMANPOUR: So trying to put the ghosts back into the can there. You are really on top of the Iran-U.S. situation. What do you think now? Can you get over this and all the current obstacles in the way to fulfill what President Obama has said, and that is a new engagement he wants with Iran?

SICK: I think we can. But, you know, it is not a one-way street, that basically just as the hostage crisis had multiple dimensions -- and I'm willing to accept that a group of students could go in and take over the -- take over the embassy. But I'm also aware that the government then intervened and became -- and became committed to that, which, in fact, has affected our relations.

And then I was very much part of the negotiations that we -- that went on with Iran after that. And the -- the hostage crisis was extended probably eight months beyond what it should have been. No matter how you look at it in terms of Iran's interests or what have you, they simply couldn't make up their mind.

And it has left the impression that, one, Iran can't be trusted; two, that when they negotiate, they negotiate in bad faith; and, three, that they are paying only attention to their own internal circumstances and ignoring everybody else. That is a legacy that we live with and even people who don't remember the hostage crisis at all still have that image of Iran that was created in those days that has not gone away.

And it's -- it's not enough just to say, "Well, that's over. We had different ideas at the time. Let's forget about it and go on." You -- you've got to come to grips with it somehow.

AMANPOUR: But yet you are also -- right. You are also, though, amongst the group of people who believe that you -- actually you do have to get over history and move forward.

SICK: I agree completely, and I believe that very deeply, but I also believe that it's not going to be just the Americans saying, "Gee, we respect Iran," Iran is going to have to quit saying, "Marg bar Amrika," every -- every 10 minutes.

AMANPOUR: Which means "Death to America."

SICK: Right.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, Mr. Asgharzadeh, we have heard Mr. Sick and Mr. Limbert talk about it must be a two-way street to move forward. What is your opinion? Can one move forward? And do you think there's any hope for a grand bargain to put this history aside and to actually restore relations? Is Iran ready for that?

ASGHARZADEH (through translator): I understand Mr. Limbert's feeling especially. I know that he went through hardships. But if we're to recount ugly events, I think it's far uglier to hit a passenger airline or hit Iran's oil rigs or support Saddam Hussein to attack Iran.

And you suffered yourself that Saddam Hussein entered Kuwait after Iran, so what Iran was saying in its position was correct.

I don't need to create a long list and bring everyone before a court.


I do agree that it's a two-way street. The Iran-U.S. talks are not ordinary talks. It is talks between two powers, each claimant on their interests in the region. NATO has come as far as Iran's security in the region. The United States knows that Iran has a stable stronghold both in Afghanistan and in Iraq and can have a defining role.

We are both affected by terrorism. After September 11th, you understood better than we did how terrorism can affect your civilians. And you have to pay the costs. Whether Iran or the United States have to be prepared to pay the costs to be ready to come closer, the national security interests of Iran are stable and long term, with a focus on the long term.

We had our own interests in the Caspian Sea, but simply because we didn't have relations with America, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was taken away, robbed away from us. Even our share in the Caspian Sea was robbed from us, but we remained silent about it, because we have long-term interests.

On a long-term basis, if you want to be a regional power, you have to understand, it doesn't happen in vacuum, and Iran understands that. Iran's security cannot happen in vacuum. Iran must understand that international situation has changed. The bipolar world and the Cold War system has collapsed. And in any case, the regional calculations have evolved.

So Iran must take itself out of the realm of threat, and that is -- that's diplomacy. And I believe for the United States, from the start, with the emergence of Mr. Obama and the Obama factor, it's something that it has to take advantage of. I think that the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama is not so much about the past, but about the future. Allow America to look to the future...

AMANPOUR: All right, Mr. Asgharzadeh.

ASGHARZADEH (through translator): ... and seize this opportunity that's been given to you by the Obama factor so -- to support him so that he can understand better what his position should be in years to come. This is a golden opportunity for America with him in as president.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Asgharzadeh?

ASGHARZADEH (through translator): And it's time to give up the talk on regime change and shift that and take it to the next level.

AMANPOUR: I appreciate that. And thank you for joining us from Tehran on this anniversary.

I want to ask you the final word. Can one get over the notion of regime change or the grievances that you both have articulated, Mr. Asgharzadeh has articulated? Is it possible that Obama's policy of engagement is going to work, briefly?

SICK: We've seen Mr. Asgharzadeh go from being, I think, a radical student and somebody who was contrary to the law, people in the U.S. government who were opposed to Iran under any circumstances, and people like John who have suffered very deeply because of this issue, we've seen all of those people change their positions and move more toward the center. If those people can, in fact, support the idea of some kind of a relationship between these two governments, I think it is doable.

AMANPOUR: Do you think it's doable?

LIMBERT: Of course it's doable. The problem has been in the past, every time you make -- every time you start making progress, somehow, either maybe diabolical coincidence, but somewhere someone comes along and messes it up, and you have to get -- but you have to get beyond that.

This relationship, 30 years of estrangement, makes no sense. My students who are 20 years old have no memory -- after six weeks in -- in my -- in studying it, they say, ask immediately, "Why are relations as bad as they are? This makes no sense."

AMANPOUR: And that's a question that we're going to be asking over and over again as we see all this play out. Thank you so much for joining us, John Limbert, Gary Sick, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh from Tehran. Thank you all for joining us.

And we'll have much more when we come back. Go to our Web site,, where we have a photo gallery of the events that led up to the overthrow of the shah and what happened afterwards.

And next, our "Post-Script." How real is the prospect that we've been talking about, the prospect of reconciliation?



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script."

On today's anniversary, there were pro- and anti-government demonstrations in Iran. As they do each year, supporters of the regime shouted, "Death to America," outside the U.S. embassy. But unlike in previous years, opponents gathered. They chanted, "Death to the dictator," still angry at President Ahmadinejad whom they accuse of stealing June's election.

Thousands of protestors defied government warnings not to take to the streets. Some protestors trampled on a poster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The pro-democracy demonstrations didn't last long. Police and militiamen used batons to beat people back. Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were prevented from getting to the main protest. Security forces fired tear gas at Karroubi's entourage.

The White House called for an end to the violence, but some protestors shouted, "Obama, either you're with us or with them." They were also heard shouting, "Freedom, independence, the Islamic Republic."

And that's our report for now. Thanks for watching, and goodbye from New York.