Iran Hostage Taker Returns to the Spotlight, With Insight

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TEHRAN -- In a way, not much has changed, said the former hostage taker, Abbas Abdi, having just watched a bootleg copy of "Argo," the movie based on the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran.

"I guess they saw us as bad guys then, and they see us as the bad guys now," Mr. Abdi said while offering a mix of pistachios, raisins and almonds to his guests. The embassy had been taken over because of fear of an American-backed coup d'état, he said, adding, "Our reasoning doesn't sell movie tickets, I assume."

In 1979, Mr. Abdi could be seen night after night on the evening news programs in the United States as one of the Iranian student leaders who took 52 Americans captive.

Mr. Abdi, an engineering student, had helped plan and stage the takeover of the embassy, which resulted in a 444-day standoff in which the hostages endured mock executions, beatings and long stints of isolation -- though Mr. Abdi says he was not involved in any of the rough stuff. Now, more than three decades later, Mr. Abdi and his compatriots are again prominently featured, this time in the movie.

Iran will commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the embassy takeover on Friday, two days earlier than the official date of Nov. 4, because of an Islamic holiday and an Iranian leap year.

Officially called the National Day of Fighting Against Global Arrogance, the festivities typically stick to a predictable script: schoolchildren shout "Death to America!" in front of the walls of the former embassy, relatives of revolutionary martyrs recite poems about justice and senior officials deliver thunderous speeches that emphasize that Iran will never establish relations with the United States until it apologizes for its mistakes.

Instead of joining the crowds, however, Mr. Abdi, 55, will be in his library, in the basement of the shiny apartment building he built two years ago. His role in the embassy takeover led to an appointment to a midlevel job in Iran's early revolutionary system. But as Iranians started longing for more freedoms, Mr. Abdi became one of the main theoreticians of a failed movement that strove to open up the political system and ease its rigid laws.

Beginning in 2003, Mr. Abdi, broad-shouldered with a long, oval face, was jailed for two years because of his political activities. Now he writes commentaries for the newspaper Etemaad, which is critical of the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but is managing to stay out of prison, prompting many to think he is still well connected.

One constant in his turbulent life is his entanglement with the United States. Like an endangered species, Mr. Abdi is recognized as being one of the last Iranians to have been in intense contact with American officials. In 1998, as part of a "personal initiative," Mr. Abdi met with one of his former captives, Barry Rosen, who was the embassy press attaché, in an effort to ease tensions between the two countries.

Today, after nearly a decade of growing tensions over Iran's nuclear program, partly fueled by the lack of normal diplomatic relations, Mr. Abdi is convinced that the only way to solve the problems is through secret negotiations.

And that is exactly what is happening now, Mr. Abdi assumes. He says it is clear that the United States and Iran are testing the waters for talks, as reported by The New York Times last month.

"From both sides, well-connected people are talking, I think," Mr. Abdi said as his cellphone rang yet again. "Not a direct official, but be sure that it is someone talking on the behest of our supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

Mr. Abdi said that Ayatollah Khamenei had firmly taken charge of possible bilateral talks. "Only by keeping such talks very close to himself can Ayatollah Khamenei prevent them from getting out of hand," he said.

"In Iran," Mr. Abdi said, "they look at the example of Libya," where Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program to appease the United States. "But when Qaddafi was faced with an uprising, all Western leaders dropped him like a brick. Judging from that, our leaders assess that compromise is not helpful."

While 33 years of estrangement has led to a series of complicated issues, like Iran's vehement opposition to Israel and the dug-in positions on the nuclear case, Mr. Abdi said that some solutions were possible.

He pointed to the changing power equations in the Middle East after the uprisings, which complicate Iran's ambition to speak for all Muslims. "Under Mubarak, it was easy for us to criticize Israel," he said, referring to the former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, but now that Mohamed Morsi is in power in Egypt and sends an ambassador to that country, "this is much harder for us." The nuclear dispute could be resolved if Israel would stop pushing the United States to act, he said, noting that "America seems much less worried about our nuclear program."

What is most important, he said, is for the United States to realize that by imposing sanctions on Iran, it has become a domestic player. Iran's leaders fear that the White House is secretly trying to use domestic political factions to engineer a change of government. "Instead, the U.S. must allow us to rebuild our domestic politics and recognize Iran as it is," Mr. Abdi said.

He said he did not agree with some hawkish Iranian politicians who have suggested that "Argo" was made to remind Americans of old wounds and humiliations, preparing them for a possible war with Iran.

"That's stupid," Mr. Abdi said with a laugh. "That's like saying 'Saving Private Ryan' was made to prepare U.S. cinemagoers for going to war with Germany."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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