BRUCE LAINGEN, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, had an appointment at the Foreign Ministry on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979. His appointment, it turned out, lasted most of the next 444 days.
Back home in Bethesda, after the yellow ribbons and the welcome-home parades, Laingen discussed Iran and his experiences there in a three-hour interview, from which these are excerpts:
Q: Would radical elements in Iran have seized the embassy even if the shah had not come to the United States? Was his arrival here simply an excuse?
A: I think that's a possibility. It is difficult to say. The shah provided the peg and it was a peg of a kind that aroused public support and enthusiasm and anger. Certainly there is evidence in retrospect that the militant students, and others in the clerical fundamentalist circles behind them, would have found other means that may well have included an effort to take the embassy, because that act was so symbolic.
There was also particular anger and irritation among those circles over the meeting in Algiers between Prime Minister [Mehdi] Bazargan and the American delegation headed by [national Security Adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski. That was just a few days before the embassy was taken over, on Nov. 1. Seen with benefit of hindsight, that meeting, for example, may well have been also a peg -- if they hadn't had the other peg.
Q: These circles feared that, by this meeting, America was again interfering in Iranian affairs?
A: Yes. They felt that the provisional government was sort of lapsing back into old habits.
Q: Was this in fact happening?
A: Well, it depends on your point of view. Certainly there was a willingness on the part of the provisional government to consider our efforts to reestablish a relationship of sorts with Iran. That was unacceptable to the radical elements. We were trying to find some way, some basis, for a new relationship.
Q: Is it possible that the government was acting in the guise of the militants and was actually responsible for the attack on the embassy?
A: The government, by that time, was largely powerless. The real power was in the hands of the clerical fundamentalists outside the regular government.
There is evidence, on the record now, that at least some of those clerical elements did have knowledge of the attack, in advance. I have no evidence to suggest that Khomeini himself had knowledge of the attack in advance. But I am reasonably confident that a number in his larger circle did: Mousavi Khoeini, for example, now a Majlis member, has himself admitted that he was in contact with the students.
But it is not easy now to come up with easy answers as to where authority lies in some of these groups. Everyone had power and yet no one had power. There were conflicting power circles, and elements that have bedeviled authority in Tehran ever since the revolution, and that continues to be the case to this day.
Presiding over these conflicting centers of power -- or efforts at power -- is Avatollah Khomeini himself. He is the ultimate arbiter of all things in the revolution. But he is hesitant, often, to come down on one side or the other, preferring to keep himself above the fray and act only in the final extremis to bring order out of this chaos.
Q: Could Khomeini have ordered the militants to stop their attack?
A: Oh, I think so. If he had brought his voice and his influence to bear. Instead he brought his influence to bear in the other direction so that within 24 hours after the initial seizure, it was clear to the students, and particularly to the mases in the streets, that this action had the support of the leaders of the revolution and, therefore, had the support of "the people."
Q: Victor Tomseth [a senior political officer who was held at the Foreign Ministry with Laingen] describes the present regime in Iran as a 14th-century theocracy that cannot long endure its leaders lack political experience and its constitution has too many checks and balances. How do you assess Iran's political future?
A: I agree that it is a system that cannot endure. As presently constituted, it is incompatible with the requirements of a modern state. And to some extent, at least, Iran is that, thanks to the forced-draft efforts of the shah to introduce and impose modernism on a state, on a society and on a culture that had a long way to go to reach the 20th century, in many respects.
The structure of government provided by the Islamic constitution is so complex as to be virtually impossible to implement in any effective, efficient manner. It has a built-in destiny for administrative inefficiency and division of power that can only result in continued instability and lack of progress, out of which change is inevitable. It cannot continue this way.
Q: How long can it continue?
A: It would be difficult to put a time frame on it. Khomeini's influence remains very strong. He therefore can continue to preside over a situation that has a great deal of disorder and inefficiency about it. But without his commanding authority and influence, I think things will be wide open.
I do not mean to suggest that the revolution will be totally set aside. By no means. I think the revolution has seen a rather fundamental change in some of the attitudes and purposes and involvement of Iranians. I think Islam will continue to be a strong, motivating factor on the part of whoever is in authority, and seeks authority, in Iran.
Q: Is Islam a stabilizing or a divisive force?
A: I've always felt that Islam as an ideology is an effective instrument contributing to political cohesion in a place like Iran. It is important as a unifying force in Iran. However, I don't mean to suggest that the kind of involvement of Islam in the practical daily affairs of government is a good thing. From my vantage point, sitting there day after day, I found constant reason to be thankful that we have a very strong tradition of division between church and state. Seeing the degree of involvement of church in state in Iran has not been a very satisfactory one, from my point of view.
Q: What about the forgotten Iranians, the educated middle class who seem to have disappeared without trace from the public Western eye? I am thinking of a government bureaucrat I met in Cambridge in July 1979. Well-educated, well-dressed, articulate, he did not disagree with the revolution: he just found life in Tehran so untenable that he was emigrating to Australia. There must be thousands like him.
A: Indeed. They are scattered all over the world. A great many came to the United States before the total hold on visa issuance went into effect in April 1980. This is a great tragedy for Iran, this loss of what is still a veneer of administrative efficiency and managerial competence. Iran needs these people if it is going to play its part in modern international society. It has been greatly weakened by the loss. Some who left may return. But the loss has been so considerable that Iran's economic future has been set way back by that fact, alone.