Forty years after having been taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, some survivors of the 444-day ordeal say that despite their own deep-seated scars, and those that remain between the U.S. and Iranian governments, it would be beneficial for the two nations to get beyond the enmity of the past. But they are not particularly optimistic it will happen.
“It’s still regrettable that we have this adversarial relationship with Iran,” said William J. Daugherty, a 72-year-old former CIA case officer who spoke to The Times from Savannah, Ga.
Daugherty was among the 52 Americans tormented by a seemingly never-ending regime of interrogations, psychological torture and beatings after several hundred Iranian student activists stormed the American compound on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979, and captured many of the diplomats and employees inside.
“We should have a closer relationship to the Iranians than of all countries in the Middle East,” said Daugherty, “given the involvement of its citizens in world affairs.... It’s a shame, if not a tragedy, that we have not been able to move soundly in that direction.”
Mark Lijek, then a 29-year-old American Citizens Service officer, counters that he prefers President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran because of its continued disruptive activities rather than President Obama’s efforts to thaw relations.
Lijek was one of six Americans who took refuge at the Canadian Embassy until CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez rescued them by disguising himself as a Canadian film crew member. The ordeal was eventually portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film “Argo.”
“The Iranian government continues to be aggressive and threatens those countries that we are aligned with,” said Lijek in a phone interview from Washington. But he added that “ultimately the U.S. and Iran have to maintain a relationship based on shared interests versus divergent ones.”
Significance of the hostage crisis
For those inside the U.S. Embassy that fateful morning, it started off as an ordinary work day. After arriving at the 27-acre U.S. compound, they walked through the front entrance and made their way inside the chancery — the main building with offices.
But around 10:30 a.m., when the attackers scaled the tall brick walls, it became quickly apparent that their lives would never be the same.
The hostage crisis is now largely viewed as the watershed moment in crumbling relations between Iran and the U.S.; an event that fundamentally reshaped the politics of both countries. Over the years, hawkish factions in both countries have continued to seize on the lingering wounds in order to push politically advantageous policies, experts said.
“It helps the Islamic Republic prevent the opening up of its domestic political environment,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New-York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. At the same time, he said, memories of the hostage crisis provide some U.S. lawmakers with “reasons to maintain anti-Iran” sentiments.
Supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, help keep the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology of anti-Americanism alive by rallying at the former U.S. Embassy on each anniversary of the hostage crisis.
On Monday, thousands gathered near the site of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran to mark its takeover 40 years ago. The theme of this year’s orchestrated rally centered on the idea of the “collapse of America.” Demonstrators carried effigies of Trump and Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Former hostages reflect on Iran-U.S. relations
Barry Rosen was a 23-year-old press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when he was taken hostage. Rosen said at the time he found it difficult to understand the motives of his captors, who later said they were angry that the U.S. had allowed the Western-backed Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi to be admitted to New York for cancer treatment. The Brooklyn native said he had fallen in love with Iran’s rich history during his two-year stint with the Peace Corps.
“I asked myself, ‘How and why are they doing this to me?’ ” Rosen, who is now 75, recalled.
At first, Rosen was optimistic that outreach and dialogue by the Obama administration with Tehran would help stabilize the region, but he said that after seeing how Iran has continued to expand its influence in neighboring Iraq and to support militant groups such as Hezbollah, he prefers maximum pressure.
“No one would have thought that in 1979 — that Iran would be controlling a lot of Iraq. Iranians are doing a lot of harm in the Middle East,” he said.
Still, he longs to travel back to Iran one day.
“There is sadness for me when I see pictures of Iran,” he said. “I doubt I will ever go back.”
Rosen said his captors never kept him in one location for too long. He nicknamed one of the rooms where he was held “the dark hole” because all the windows were covered with cinder blocks to prevent light from penetrating. For a few minutes on most afternoons, Rosen said, he found solace when a small amount of light made its way through a vent fan, allowing him to see the reflection of a bird perched on a tree outside.
“It would come by almost every afternoon at about the same time, and I just looked at him and watched him with great joy,” Rosen said.
For those who seek to de-escalate hostilities, the landmark nuclear deal ratified in 2015 by Iran and seven world powers, including the U.S. under Obama, served as a pivotal moment. (The deal sought to curb Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for sanctions relief.)
The nuclear agreement , said Daughterty, the undercover CIA case officer, was a promising step toward an opening for diplomacy and trust-building.
“You start with little steps. The more important thing was the opportunity for confidence-building,” he said.
But several other former hostages said they were skeptical about detente with Iran and support Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal because it gives more tools to hold the Islamic Republic accountable.
One of those former hostages is Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann. When the student activists tried to break into the chancery, Sickmann, then a 22-year-old Marine, was ordered to protect the embassy but given orders to not shoot.
“We need to put the harshest restrictions on Iran,” he said. “The sanctions have worked because it put restrictions on the Islamic Republic to not buy weapons. Hopefully the Iranian people will stand up to their government.”
Now 62, Sickmann said the trauma creeps up at unexpected moments.
“I filled up my car with gas the other day and the price came to $44.45, and I sat there thinking of my 444 days,” he said. “My worst time was when they stripped us down and put rifles to our head.”
The lasting impact of the hostage crisis in Iran
For decades, the Islamic Republic has defined itself on its fervent revolutionary ideology of anti-Americanism, and analysts say the government’s survival has depended on it. But some question whether things could be different.
That’s because today nearly three-quarters of Iran’s 80 million people are younger than 35. Those in the youth demographic have proved increasingly sympathetic to American culture and politics — at least until Trump was elected in 2016.
According to an October survey conducted in Iran by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and the Canadian-based research firm IranPoll, negative views of the U.S. are now at a record high among Iranians, with unfavorable views rising 10% after the election of Trump. The poll also found that 15 months after the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal, 59% of Iranians thought the Islamic Republic should also withdraw.
Ghaemi said Trump’s travel ban and sanctions have also helped to reinforce negative views toward the United States.
“Much of the population in Iran wanted to repair relations with the U.S. up to the time Trump came to power,” Ghaemi said. “But right now it’s easy for the Islamic Republic to define itself by being anti-American because American foreign policy is punishing ordinary Iranians.”
The hostage crisis has also come to serve as an example of how detaining foreign nationals can be an effective tool in extracting political concessions from foreign governments, experts said.
“It’s part of the reason why arrests of U.S. citizens in Iran [are] not like any other country...,” said Richard Nephew, a former sanctions expert at the U.S. State Department. He is now a senior research professor at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Today, there are at least six U.S. citizens behind bars in Iran who experts believe will be used by authorities as political bargaining chips for future negotiations with the United States.
“We are still bound to what happened 40 years ago,” said Nephew. “The lesson is we are hostages to our own history.”