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Ex-U.S. Embassy Hostage Meets With Iranian Captor

History: Reunion is a sign of emerging ties between the two nations. Both men call for a 'new beginning.'

August 01, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — For Barry Rosen, the decision was his toughest in nearly 20 years. Should he come face to face with a man who held him and 51 other Americans hostage in Iran for 444 agonizing days as mobs chanted "Death to America!" outside?

Rosen, former press officer--and captive--at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, decided that it was time. For two hours Friday, he shared a speaker's platform with Abbas Abdi, onetime Iranian revolutionary student leader and a mastermind of the 1979 embassy takeover.

What's important now is not to forget or forgive, Rosen, 54, told a conference on American-Iranian relations, but for the United States and Iran to move on.

"The past can't be made to go away, and shouldn't," the former U.S. diplomat said. "But a new beginning can be made."

At the end, a solemn Rosen, now executive director of public affairs at Teachers College, part of Columbia University in New York, rose and stood to the right of the stubble-chinned Abdi, 42. The men clasped hands, and the bearded and bald American slapped his former captor on the back.

"The past cannot be altered," said Abdi, who now works as a columnist and editorial board member at Salam, a Tehran newspaper. "Instead, we must focus on building a better future, which is unquestionably within our capabilities."

Abdi offered no apologies. Instead, he said the student occupation saved American lives by preventing an attack from armed Iranian radicals.

Friday's unprecedented encounter took place under the aegis of an organization headed by Eric Rouleau, a former French ambassador who, as correspondent for the Paris daily Le Monde, covered the hostage crisis. The meeting was the idea of Iranian friends of Abdi, who contacted Rouleau's Cyprus-based Center for World Dialogue.

*

Rosen said he agreed to take part after struggling to "put my resentment behind me."

"I sensed the time had come to put 'closed' on 444 days that brought me great pain, partly because I want to enjoy the anticipation that a new page in Iranian-American history may soon be turned," he said.

Though both he and Abdi stressed they were in Paris as private citizens, the encounter was taken by experts as yet another sign that once-abysmal U.S.-Iranian ties have improved since moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in January called for tearing down the "wall of mistrust" between the countries. Abdi is reputed to be close to Khatami.

"This is not a dialogue between civil societies," said Hooshang Amirahmahi, former director of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University who said he played a part in organizing Friday's get-together. "This is a dialogue between the United States and Iran."

If so, the session in an auditorium of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization headquarters here quickly demonstrated how fraught with pain and difficulty that dialogue will be.

On three separate occasions, guards were called in to clear the hall of Iranian exiles who stood up and shouted that Abdi had a hand in the deaths of 30,000 political prisoners and other alleged crimes of Iran's Islamic regime.

Abdi said he had been one of a dozen student ringleaders of the Nov. 4, 1979, embassy takeover, but he downplayed the significance of the event as a generator of U.S.-Iranian tensions.

The true foundation of the mutual mistrust, he maintained, came in 1953 when nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadegh was ousted in a U.S.-sponsored coup and replaced with the pro-Western shah.

This was the "taking of an entire nation hostage," Abdi said.

Rosen, who had been blindfolded at times by the Iranian students, branded a spy and confined to a crude prison cell during his ordeal, acknowledged that Iranians do have grievances over past U.S. policies toward their country. But nothing, the New Yorker said, can pardon the conduct of those who "squashed the human rights" of himself and the other Americans kept prisoner until January 1981.

According to Abdi, the original goal of the students was to pressure the United States into deporting Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had fled into exile.

The militants' leaders believed that the embassy occupation would last no longer than a week--it dragged on in fact for almost 15 months--"and relations between the countries would return to normal," Abdi said.

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Abdi said conditions were so humane and friendly in the embassy that captors and captives played chess together--an assertion Rosen ridiculed.

The former captive said Abdi either had forgotten or did not know what he was talking about because the former Tehran Polytechnic University student had been a leader and not one of the militants who occupied the embassy day in and day out. Before the two men came to Paris, they said, they had no recollection of ever having met before.

In an interview, Rosen said he believed that Abdi had to be very guarded about what he said Friday.

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