WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite humiliation, solitary confinement and having a gun held to his head during the U.S. Embassy crisis in Iran three decades ago, former hostage Bruce Laingen still favors diplomacy with Tehran.
The most senior diplomat at the embassy when it was seized by Islamist students in 1979, Laingen argued for years afterward for opening dialogue with Iran and backs the talks that led to a breakthrough agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program in the early hours of Sunday in Geneva.
But as hostility between the United States and Iran eases, Laingen and fellow ex-hostages want the Islamic Republic at least to acknowledge the trauma of their captivity.
“We haven’t heard that expression of apology yet. Why not?” said Laingen, whose wife Penelope started what became the campaign to tie a yellow ribbon around a tree to remember the hostages while they were being detained.
He and other former hostages spoke last week about talks between six major powers, including the United States, and Iran. Those talks led to Sunday’s deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, in what could be the first sign of an emerging rapprochement between the Islamic state and the West.
Before news of the deal, Reuters interviewed six of the former hostages who were released in 1981. Some backed President Barack Obama’s attempt to thaw relations with Iran and others thought the White House is being duped by a secretive government that may be building a nuclear bomb.
But one common thread running through their opinions about Iran three decades later is the feeling that Tehran needs to acknowledge the 444-day ordeal of 52 Americans - 39 of them are still alive - or be held accountable for it.
The hostage-taking from November 1979 to January 1981 prompted Washington to break diplomatic ties and set the stage for decades of mistrust between the two countries.
“I personally believe there should be no relationship established whatsoever until Iran has had extracted from them some type of reparations,” said Kevin Hermening, who was a Marine guard at the embassy when it was over-run by supporters of the Islamic Revolution.
“To relax the sanctions is to reward them for simply having waited us out based on the idea that we would forget or ignore or pretend it never happened,” said Hermening, who now lives in Wisconsin and has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican.
Efforts by former hostages to win compensation were ignored for years and dealt a setback in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand lower court decisions that the Algiers Accords - the deal reached by the United States and Iran that released the hostages - prohibited compensation lawsuits against Iran.
Former hostages are now hoping that Congress can take action. Senators Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, have sponsored legislation to compensate the hostages and their families from fees collected from violations of the current sanctions against Iran.
It is not clear if that bill will succeed and the Obama administration is keen to keep the talks with Iran focused only on the issue of its nuclear program to avoid complicating already difficult negotiations. Iran has long said that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes.
Seeing Iran talk to the United States without acknowledging blame for the hostage crisis upsets Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann, a former Marine guard at the embassy. “It hurts that here we are negotiating with Iran, and Iran acts like nothing really happened.”
Sickmann was locked in a room with 24-hour armed guards, enduring mock firing squads and Russian roulette, and allowed outside only seven times during “444 traumatic days” of captivity.
“They told us in my interrogation it is not you the American people we hate, it’s your government, but we will use you to humiliate your government,” he said. “And they’ve done it for 34 years.”
Laingen was acting head of the embassy when hundreds of Iranian students invaded and took it over and demanded that Washington hand over for trial the toppled Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was in America for medical treatment.
Now 91, the U.S. diplomat who has favored dialogue with Iran for years says “It’s high time, it’s overtime.”
“We have so much to talk about. There is all manner of issues that confront both governments. It’s a lot easier to talk about those problems if you have a direct, face-to-face relationship with each other,” he said.
The nuclear issue aside, the United States and Iran have a host of grievances, many of them rancorous and unlikely to be resolved soon.
Just as the hostage-taking soured Americans’ views of Iran for decades, Iranians still remember with bitterness the CIA’s role in the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the U.S. Navy’s shooting down of an Iran Air commercial plane in 1988 that killed all 290 people on board.
The two countries have been at loggerheads for years over what Washington says is Iran’s support for terrorism, and over Tehran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran’s standing in the world would improve if it apologized for the hostage-taking, said Laingen.
“What have they got to lose by doing that? Except a recognition by all inhabitants on the planet.”
Former hostages who were diplomats appear more in favor of rebuilding a relationship with Iran than those who were military personnel at the time.
“In my view it should be that at least we be able to talk about things that concern both of us, not that we are friends, not that we like each other, not that we are allies, but that at least we can talk to each other, which we have not been able to do for 34 years,” said John Limbert, 70, who was a political officer at the embassy and is now a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
Limbert said he confronted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a couple of years ago at a dinner in New York for American academics where Ahmadinejad had talked about how he would like to see better relations.
“I asked him about those events and he looked at me right in the face and he said ‘Well, we treated you OK didn’t we?’”
“And I said, ‘Sir you did not.’”
David Roeder, who was an Air Force attache at the embassy, said he hoped the American delegation in the Iran nuclear talks would “play hardball.”
Roeder said the hostage-takers found out he had a handicapped son and during interrogations would threaten to kidnap the boy and send body parts to his wife unless he cooperated.
Iran is masterful at negotiation and stalling tactics and has never paid for violating international law in the hostage crisis, said Roeder, 74.
“I’m very, very concerned that we might be on the verge of rewarding bad behavior,” he said. Iran denies Western charges that its nuclear program is intended to build an atomic bomb.
Roeder criticized Obama for making a phone call to Rouhani in September even though the Iranian leader declined to meet the U.S. president at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
“I was disappointed that he blinked first, if you will, by calling Rouhani, when apparently the new president of Iran didn’t have time to meet personally with him at the General Assembly,” he said
Some of the hostages have let go of hatred for Iran.
Kathryn Koob, 75, was an embassy cultural officer and one of two women held hostage. She says her Lutheran Christian faith helped her deal with anger toward Iran both during captivity and afterward.
“If you harbor resentment, anger, bitterness, hatred, that dominates your day for the rest of your life. In a sense the people who have perpetrated some sort of evil upon you win every single day,” she said.
Her response when she learned about the thaw in relations was: “It’s about time, really.”
Editing by Ross Colvin, Frances Kerry and Eric Walsh