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Plight of a Captor Turned Captive

November 10, 2002|Barry Rosen | Barry Rosen was the last U.S. press attache in Iran. He is the executive director of external affairs at Teachers College, Columbia University.

NEW YORK — According to the BBC, Abbas Abdi, a mastermind of the storming and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran 23 years ago, has been arrested. I was one of the 52 American embassy officials and civilians he and his student-activist supporters held hostage that Nov. 4 and for 443 days thereafter. Has justice, at long last, arrived?

Ironically, Abdi was reportedly arrested Nov. 4, which Iran still celebrates as the "Day of Fighting Global Arrogance." He was jailed in a crackdown by the Iranian judiciary on polling organizations that have been producing reports disliked by hard-liners. One such poll recently showed that Iranians overwhelmingly support a new and open relationship with the United States.

I'm not sure whether Abdi's polling organization, which was closed down before his arrest, had anything to do with that poll. But I'm certain of this: He should be freed.

How, you may ask, can I support a man who made my life and others' miserable and, at times, hopeless?

Because Abdi has turned his life around. He is now a prominent figure in Iran's reformist movement.

I met Abdi in August 1998. It was the first meeting of a former hostage and hostage-taker since the end of the embassy takeover in January 1981. I was terribly frightened that I was making a huge mistake in meeting the man who had not only imprisoned me and other Americans but had also caused the arrest of any Iranian who had ever dealt with the U.S. Embassy. In seizing the embassy's confidential files, the student-activists and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's hard-liners had wiped out any possibility of a more moderate opposition emerging to challenge their defiantly undemocratic theological state.

Our meeting at the Paris headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was ostensibly about the future of U.S.-Iranian relations. But Abdi and I soon began to talk about other things, like family. My wife and daughter accompanied me, and Abdi was gracious and kind to them, especially when my daughter came down with a serious illness.

Thereafter, we often met for meals and attempted to speak candidly to each other about our experiences during the embassy takeover. I told him how bitter I and some other Americans remained over being held hostage, over how our families had suffered and over how Abdi had given Khomeini carte blanche to eliminate a politically viable opposition.

Abdi spoke less about his personal life than about the change in his political views since 1981. He was now a journalist, political analyst and activist for change. Although still a devout Muslim, he said he no longer believed in the autocratic Islamic Republic of Iran but instead wanted a reformed, democratically run Iran infused with the spirit of Islam. He had become a major supporter of reform President Mohammad Khatami.

On each of the three days I saw Abdi, he presented me with a gift: an Iranian mosaic box, a new book on politics in Iran and a small prayer rug. The gifts were his way of saying he was my host once again, but this time he was making up for his behavior in 1979.

Abdi was also trying to show me that people can change and that he had a higher purpose in life. The night before he departed for Tehran, he stood up at a gathering and apologized for what he and the others had done to the Americans and their families. He spoke directly to my wife, Barbara, and my daughter, Ariana, as if he were totally alone with them.

Next morning, as we said our goodbyes, we looked each other in the eyes. I warned him to be careful.

I thought he had been. But Abdi's urge to reform Iran may have gotten the best of him. I will never be able to avenge the pain I suffered during my captivity in Tehran, but Iran needs to change, and Abdi needs to be free. Only with selfless men like him can Iran move toward a more democratic society.

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