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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

By Joe Davidson
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."

Limbert was held in the embassy until a failed rescue mission. Then hostages were sent to prisons, including one nicknamed the "Hitler Hilton."

"The physical conditions were pretty bad, but they weren't deliberately trying to kill us," said Limbert, who lost 25 pounds in captivity.

In honor of the former hostages, and the sacrifices of Foreign Service officers and their families, AFSA has placed yellow ribbons around its office, said Ian Houston, the executive director.

"It really is important for the American public to understand what our diplomats do," he said. "I think the American public could have a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices they make."

Laingen and Limbert, along with the other hostages, represent the sacrifice and risks that federal civilian employees take when they go overseas to serve their country. The hostages included Marines and CIA officers, whose sacrifices are no less important.

But what sets Foreign Service officers apart is their mission of diplomacy, and they go unarmed.

There is "very, very little" appreciation for the dangers that Foreign Service officers face, said Limbert, a former AFSA president. "That was our message not just to the public, but to our friends in Congress."

Here's something that Congress and President Obama didn't note when imposing the two-year federal pay freeze: Although the freeze excluded the military, it was imposed on Foreign Service officers who sometimes work side-by-side with soldiers in war zones.

But that apparently doesn't bother Limbert, who seems to be a diplomat in character as much as he is by profession. He doesn't like the idea of dividing Foreign Service officers into categories that would allow some to get a raise while others have their pay frozen. He also doesn't want to take anything away from those in uniform. "They have dirty and dangerous jobs," he said.

Limbert does find it odd that the attempt by former hostages "to get compensation has been opposed by our own government. . . . Our government and the Iranian government . . . don't agree on much," he said, "but why do they have to agree on this one thing?"

The State Department says it has no choice.

"As an essential condition of their release from captivity, the United States agreed in the Algiers Accords to withdraw its claim against Iran before the International Court of Justice and bar claims arising out of the hostage taking from U.S. courts," according to a department statement. "Although we understand their frustration, we are bound by this commitment and must continue to honor it."

federaldiary@washpost.com

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