MICHAEL METRINKO was a political officer in the American Embassy in Tehran when it was stormed by Iranian militants. He described his experiences in detail to Anthony R. Cannella of the Scranton (Pa.) Times. Metrinko's hometown paper. The following is excerpted from that interview:
Q: The Washington Post a few months ago had a big series on Iran and you were pointed out as having -- in Tabriz, about a year before you were overrun -- picked up a lot of signals about the shah tottering. Did you in fact foresee something?
A: Yes, it goes back further than that. It goes back to 1977, shortly after I got back to Iran from being in Syria and Turkey. It seemed clear that there was a great deal of discontent, that Savak [the shah's security police] and the shah's Pahlavi regime were in a lot of trouble. That if he was not overthrown, there would be very serious trouble with the regime. I was simply getting it from too many people. It was all across the country, at every level.
Q: Did your superiors believe that? Were they digesting it?
A: It was a minority opinion, and I found a great deal of interest expressed by the Department of State in what I was saying. I received private letters and communications from people in the Department of State saying, "I read such and such a report; I'm really interested in this; please keep me informed when you feel that you're getting more of this type of information." Quite a bit of that. I don't think the feeling was shared by everybody, though. American business, American government, if you will, the American defense establishment had a great stake in Iran at the time, a stake that Iran remain as it was, and people who don't want something to change don't want to believe that it will change.
Q: Americans are constantly asking, "Was the shah as bad as the Khomeini people say he was?"
A: I know thousands of Iranians. Some of my closest friends are Iranian. They still are. I have experience in Iran going back to 1960, as a tourist. I've lived there for seven years. I know Iranians who live in mud houses and I know Iranians who live in palaces. I know members of the shah's family and I know people who don't have two pennies to rub against each other. One of the things that Iranians lack is a sense of personal responsiblity for events. They are completely unable to accept personal responsibility for things that they do themselves. Savak probably did do a lot of things that would be considered torture. I have friends who were killed in Savak prisons. I've seen the results of their torture, their ill treatment. But is America responsible for that? No. Americans were not doing it. We weren't commanding it or controlling it. Savak was an Iranian organization staffed by Iranians. There were no Americans in the torture rooms. They were Iranians, and Iranians have a battery of secret organizations and tortures going back at least 2,500 years. A history of cruelty, a history of despotism, a history of torture done on purpose. You can go back and it's all part of Iranian culture. I've seen kids in high school flogged for talking in class. It's very much part of the Iranian tradition. They're still doing it. What's the difference if you're flogged by Savak or flogged by a mullah?
Q: So the executions by the Iranian revolutionary government don't surprise you?
A: No, because Iranians are a cruel people toward the weak. They always have been, and I think honest Iranians realize this.
Q: What about the shah and his legacy?
A: People complain about the shah. It's very popular to. The shah was the leader of Iran for 37 years. I think that, all in all, considering the fact that he was a world leader for 37 years, he has a fantastic record. Can you imagine any American president surviving that long? What would be said about him now? The shah made great mistakes, yeah. He also made tremendous progress. And consider what he was working with -- an illiterate country, a country that was threatened on all sides militarily, a very vulnerable country, a very rich country whose resources made it very vulnerable. It's very easy for somebody to complain about the way he did it, but I can't see him having done it any other way. He was dealing with people he knew very well.
Q: You said others were in solitary and not heard from, but do you think you were less heard from than the rest? Some called you the "lost hostage."
A: Let me give you an example about communications. Sgt. Regia Ragan -- he's from Johnstown [Pa.] -- was my first roommate in late April. The first time that I saw another American, it was Sgt. Ragan. This was April of 1980. He had not yet heard from his mother. Nothing. Col. Roeder [Lt. Col. David Roeder of Alexandria] went for months without hearing from his wife.
I had a very long talk with one of the very few good guys, really a good-guy guard who was in charge of the mail for a long time, and he explained about why I was not heard from, and why others were or were not. The reasoning he gave was this. He said: First -- in theory we were allowed to write three letters a week; I wasn't given permission to do that until the Red Cross visit in April -- "Now, three letters a week," the guard said, "imagine three letters a week from each hostage. That's at least 150 letters a week. We don't have the money to mail them out." "First of all we don't bother mailing out most of them anyway." He said, "We just throw them away, and each person we'll mail out one or two or three a month for."
He told me, "Your case was different because we thought you were very important." I was chief master spy, whatever. I had spent so many years there -- seven years -- and Iranians cannot understand why anybody in his right mind would spend seven years in Iran. They really believed that I was other than a diplomat.
There were other problems, too. One of the very first things they discovered and translated was my last efficiency report. It was a very detailed, seven or eight page description of my qualifications, people I knew, my contacts, my ability to analyze Iranian events, and they discovered this immediately. It was a beautiful piece of paper that sounded as though I walked on water. They were quite upset about that. They thought that I had done something against the revolution. I helped a lot of Americans out of Tabriz because some Americans who had been in prison were trapped there.
Q: Why were you not heard from for so long?
A: I spent about nine months of the time in solitary confinement. Most of the other prisoners did not know where I was, and because of my position prior to the takeover, the militants, or the students, or whatever you want to call them, thought I was far more important than I was. They assumed that I was a spy as opposed to some of the other people in the embassy who they knew were not. They believed that I was. I had trouble because I was "important" and also because of my attitude towards the guards. I was also told that if I would be nicer to them they would send my letters out.
Q: Can you amplify on that -- your attitude toward them?
A: I was not terribly polite to them as often as possible. It was quid pro quo . I wasn't being nice to them; they weren't going to be nice to me.
Q: You stressed when I talked to you before on the telephone about how you harbor no bitterness toward the Iranian people in general.
A: Very true. Most of my close friends are Iranians. When we arrived in Wiesbaden, after I called my immediate family, I called my Iranian friends.
Q: When you say "criminals," do you mean this elite group of captors or the whole Islamic Revolutionary Party?
A: I have friends who are or were extremely anti-shah, extremely pro-shah. I have friends who are peasants and friends from the imperial court. I have friends who were in prison. I know several people who were executed. I have friends who were killed protesting against the shah. I have very close friends who were killed after the revolutionary courts. The politics of my friends has never been a condition for the friendship, it has nothing at all to do with my friendship for them or my relationship with them.
Q: Who was the "head honcho" that people refer to? Do you know?
A: Khomeini, always.
Q: I meant within the embassy. Some hostages, in reports, have referred to a "head honcho" who was running things. Were you aware of any?
A: The students -- I say students because they called themselves students . . .
Q: First of all, were they students?
A: Not as far as I can see. Many of them were not students. I had lots of conversations with them about this. Many of them had been students, had left the universities two, three, four years before. Some had registered several years before and had never gone back. Many of them simply were too dumb to be students anywhere, basically illiterate. There was no ways they could be described as students.
Q: Did you ever get the impression that they were backed into a situation and they wished that they could get back to their normal lives?
A: Yes, a lot of them did leave, as a matter of fact. The initial group that was in on the takeover of the embassy disappeared. There were a large number of them. They thought it was all great fun for the first week or two weeks and there were hundred and hundreds of them at that time. And slowly but surely, they started to dissolve, until they came down to a hard core. In fact, toward the very end, they were having trouble finding people to do guard duty.
Q: Could you monitor, at least through hearing from wherever you were, the fervor of the people out in the street? Was it something that was very big at first, then died down a bit?
A: I'm used to crowd fervor. It's the ranting and raving that any large group of people in a crowd or mob will go through. They are the same people who in 1977 and 1978 would run out and shout, "Long lived the shah!" and in 1978 and 1979 began to say, "Death to the shah!" and "Death to America!" I can give examples of that.
Q: Are these the so-called --
A: The street rebels with nothing else to do. They have no idea who the head of the country is. In Iran, if you want a crowd to yell anything you want.
Q: Were you prepared for this experience or was it a total disillusionment with a country which I assume you had a great attachment for?
A: I can't say I was prepared for what happened, exactly. If I had been, I wouldn't have stayed. And I wouldn't have left my house completely furnished there. But, on the other hand, I was not surprised. I should have been better prepared. I should have foreseen it.
Q: Were you beaten or tortured in any physical sense of the word?
A: I was hit several times. Once quite badly. I probably caused it myself.
Q: What did you do?
A: We were always blindfolded when we were taken from the room or if we had to go to the bathroom or do anything at all outside of our cells. One day I simply decided that I had had enough of the blindfolding. I was tired of ti and so I tried to get out of my room without the blindfold and that upset the guard. We started to argue and I told him what I thought of Khomeini, his own mother, various other members of his family and the political and sexual level of the group that was doing the guarding. I think I provoked the beating. So he and some friends of his came back, pulled me out to the hallway and gave me a lesson in courtesy. I also ended up spending two weeks in a punishment cell as a result of that incident.
Q: Around the first Christmas, where were you at this time?
A: In the chancery building, the top floor. In one of the former offices. At that point, I refused to take part in any of the Christmas ceremonies they had drummed up. They never told me that any priests were coming. They attempted to give me special food for Christmas and I refused. They would not give me any Christmas cards at that point.
Q: You must have suspected people were writing, but you had no idea how much?
A: True. I found out later, by the way, that there had been a program in the United States where there was an attempt to send one million Christmas cards to the embassy, to the hostages. Now, they received those and I found out from one of the guards that they had burned about 90 percent of them. As a matter of fact, one of the hostages saw them burning the mail sacks. I did receive two or three cards much, much later.
Q: Was the first piece of mail you received from your parents?
A: As a matter of fact, it was from the president of Georgetown University. Then, I received a letter from a very, very close friend with whom I hadn't had any contact for about 10 or 11 years, which as really thrilling.
Q: This would have been about nine months after the takeover?
A: I received it in March. And then I got one or two cards from my parents. These were all dated early December and I got them in March. They I received nothing again for months. I understand now from talking with my parents and other members of my family and friends that they were all writing every week -- that I was, in theory, receiving hundreds of pieces of mail. I probably received between 20 and 30 pieces during the whole 14 months, most of which were from my family.
Q: And most of it came in the latter part of your detainment?
A: You have heard the other hostages talk about their little games with the mail. Just this past Christmas, for example, one of the guards walked into my room and said, "Are your parents Harry and Alice Metrinko?" and I said "Yes". He was holding a stack of mail in his hands and he said, "This was from them," and he walked out again with it. I never saw it.