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Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly said that the hostage crisis in Iran began 30 years earlier. It was the end of the crisis that came 30 years before the column appeared; the hostages were taken in November 1979 and released in January 1981.

Federal Diary: 1980s hostages reflect on captivity, U.S.-Iran relations

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 6:49 PM

Three decades don't help the ugly look any better.

It was 30 years ago this month that a few hundred Iranians took American diplomats hostage in an act of political kidnapping that still poisons relations between the two countries.

"It was wrong on every conceivable count," said L. Bruce Laingen, who was the charge d'affaires. "It was absolutely wrong. . . . That is my most vivid memory today."

Former political officer John W. Limbert agrees, saying that he "would take any opportunity" to tell his captors "what a terrible thing they had done by their own criteria."

The two retired career Foreign Service officers, who became ambassadors, will look back on the hostage crisis during a program at the State Department on Friday that is sponsored by the American Foreign Service Association. It would be understandable if a sense of anger is heard during that discussion, but what some might not expect is the ability of the hostages to overcome emotion and call for closer relations between the two countries.

Like the true diplomats and public servants they are, Laingen and Limbert quickly set personal feelings aside when talking about the value in restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran. The countries have not had official relations since the hostage crisis.

"Thirty years we've been thumping our chest at each other," Limbert said. "And I'd say [the result of] 30 years of chest thumping is a sore chest."

Writing in the Baltimore Sun last week, Laingen said that the 30 years "mark the longest gap in relations with another country in the history of American diplomacy." In an interview, he added: "That is wrong."

Although some hostages were released earlier, the bulk, a little more than 50, finally saw freedom Jan. 20, 1981. For most of the 444 days of captivity, Laingen was held separately, in the foreign ministry, where he had been meeting with the foreign minister.

About three weeks before he was released, he was transferred to solitary confinement in a prison cell, where he found the names of American colleagues scratched in the walls.

There's anguish in his voice when he talks about his inability to protect colleagues who were in the embassy when it was overrun.

"I was captain of the ship. I was chief of mission, but I couldn't do a damn thing to help my colleagues held across town in worse conditions," he said. "I live with that pain, that hurt, that anger."


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