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Victims of a Long-Lost Battle for Decency : Iran: The gaunt figures blinking into the sun are not the only ones bewildered. Failing to understand our foreign-policy history, we are all hostages.

<i> Roger Morris is the author of "Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, 1913-1952" (Henry Holt & Co.). </i>

Amid the relief and joy, there is something anticlimactic, almost numbing, as the American hostages begin to trickle home from Lebanon. In their absence, they have been with us so long.

Even the White House, it seems, has always been a bit distracted by some kind of Iranian problem, by liberation of one sort or another. In the very tumult of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt made his plans to reform a futile, impoverished Persia and to free the country from its historic predators, Britain and Russia. He was “thrilled by the idea of using Iran,” F.D.R. once wrote his secretary of state, “as an example of what we could do by an unselfish American policy.”

What a chasm separates that hope--Iran as an “example"--and the pathetic sight of thin-bearded figures, squinting and suddenly free of their blindfolds. Far from one President’s distant dream, we have watched one of his successors, Jimmy Carter, brought down by policy turned tragic, by an Iran more enemy than example. And another, Ronald Reagan, nearly suffered the same fate.

So much ironic, largely hidden history trails our hostages out of their captivity. Roosevelt’s altruistic vision died with him in 1945. The Soviets were held off from encroaching on northern Iran in one of the early checking moves of the Cold War, but the British and their ubiquitous oil interests promptly reappeared. By 1953, we had encountered our first troublesome Iranian leader, an eccentric, fiercely nationalist octogenarian named Mohammed Mossadegh, who was given to conducting diplomacy from his bed, often wept and fainted in the process, and in any case believed that Iran should own and control its own rich deposits of petroleum.

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When negotiations failed--the first of so many--the CIA staged an elaborate and well-financed coup d’etat to replace Mossadegh with the young Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and a more pliant regent-prime minister, Gen. Fazollah Zahedi, whose record included collaboration with the Nazis. In the aftermath, the British oil interests were secured, though not quite with the old monopoly. Five major U.S. oil companies divided 40% of the Iranian petroleum; another 20% was taken by Dutch and French firms.

Over the next quarter of a century, Washington was an ever-stronger supporter of the shah, our economic and mostly military aid growing from the hundreds of millions to more than $14 billion. Iran became a virtual American base in the Cold War, with several U.S. military installations and intelligence listening posts.

Just as ineluctably, the United States became enmeshed and popularly identified in Iran with the gruesomely repressive and corrupt royal regime we had spawned in the coup. CIA and Pentagon sponsorship of the shah’s notorious secret police, Savak, was a commonplace of Iranian life. When I visited Tehran in the late 1960s as a young White House aide, Savak agents rode about the city in Jeeps emblazoned with the bitterly ironic U.S. aid insignia, clasped hands against an Iranian and American shield.

According to at least one former CIA analyst on Iran and scores of Iranian witnesses, the agency even instructed Savak in torture techniques. Our Iranian ally, concluded Amnesty International in 1976, had “a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”

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How all this was viewed by a bipartisan succession of Washington bureaucrats, Congresses and Presidents can be sampled in the words of one of the Shah’s most ardent supporters, former President Richard Nixon. As late as 1982, when the regime and its monarch had died in a pall of oppression and thievery, when the torture was all too documented, Nixon could write of the shah, “He was not ruthless enough in quashing those who threatened his nation’s stability.”

As it happened, not even secret CIA subsidies to the rebellious priests themselves--more than $100 million, by one estimate--prevented the eventual overthrow of the shah by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the coming to power of the sterile, vengeful theocracy that now rules Iran and pulls so many of the strings on the hostage-takers and hostage-holders in Lebanon.

Not that this is only a matter of Iran’s tragic past and present. There are, obviously, the shadowed annals of Washington’s place in the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, our role in the development of an Israeli nuclear arsenal or, more immediately, our forewarning and covert encouragement of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that set so much of the scene for the current hostage crisis. There is, moreover, the still incomplete story of the Iran-Contra enormity, or of the well-obscured caprice and injustices of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whose captive Arabs rationalize and prolong the captivity of Americans.

Nor does any of that justify or excuse this seizure of innocents, this chain reaction of one species of terrorism, one mad policy unfolding out of another.

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Yet the harsh truth is that almost none of our hostages would be imaginable without all of that history, without a painfully direct cause and effect in our relations with the Middle East. They are casualties of F.D.R.'s long-lost battle for selflessness and decency in American foreign policy.

The makeshift prisons of our era are not, of course, only in the cellars and courtyards of Beirut. They are there, too, in Washington, fearfully holed up behind metal detectors and a burly new legion of security guards. As our returning captives can testify, one never knows where such scores are going to be settled.

In a sense, the men now coming home from Lebanon are returning not only from another place, but from another history, another perspective on American power and ideals, and on the terrible price we will continue to pay for our Cold War excesses and expedience of the past 40 years.

Gaunt figures blinking into the sun at some air base in Europe, they are not the only ones rather bewildered. In an America still too largely ignorant of its own foreign-policy history, we are all hostages.

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