McLEAN, Va. (AP) – To some of the Americans subjected to mock executions and other torment during more than a year as hostages in Iran more than 30 years ago, it seems like a mistake to trust the regime in Tehran to keep its promises in a nuclear deal brokered by the U.S. and other world powers.
The prolonged hostage crisis that began in 1979 gnawed at American emotions and touched off decades of animosity between the U.S. and a nation that had once been an ally. The latest deal has been touted as a trust-building endeavor, though some who endured captivity are skeptical.
“It’s kind of like Jimmy Carter all over again,” said Clair Cortland Barnes, now retired and living in Leland, N.C., after a career at the CIA and elsewhere. He sees the negotiations now as no more effective than they were for the Carter administration, when he and others languished.
Retired Air Force Col. Thomas E. Schaefer, 83, called the deal “foolishness.”
“My personal view is, I never found an Iranian leader I can trust,” he said. “I don’t think today it’s any different from when I was there. None of them, I think, can be trusted. Why make an agreement with people you can’t trust?”
Schaefer was a military attache in Iran who was among those held hostage. He now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife of more than 60 years, Anita, who also takes a dim view of the agreement: “We are probably not very Christian-like when it comes to all this,” she said.
The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers _ the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany _ is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran’s disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring of Iran’s facilities. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.
The hostage crisis began in November 1979 when militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and seized its occupants. In all, 66 were taken hostage. Thirteen were released less than three weeks later in 1979; one was released in July 1980; the remaining 52 were released Jan. 20, 1981.
To be sure, the former hostages have varying views. Victor Tomseth, 72, a retired diplomat from Vienna, Va., sees the pact as a positive first step.
Tomseth, who was a political counselor at the embassy in Tehran in 1979, had written a diplomatic cable months before the hostage crisis warning about the difficulties of negotiation with the Iranians. Among other issues, Tomseth wrote that “the Persian experience has been that nothing is permanent and it is commonly perceived that hostile forces abound.” As a result, he wrote that Iranians are more likely to be preoccupied with the short-term gains of an agreement and to treat negotiations as adversarial.
Still, he said in a phone interview Monday that it is possible to cut a mutually beneficial deal with them.
“The challenge is Iranian society and politics is so fragmented that it’s difficult to reach a consensus,” he said _ a problem that is also present in the U.S.
He said he considers the deal “in a category of an initial confidence measure.”
John Limbert, 70, of Arlington, who was a political officer held hostage during the crisis and later became deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in 2009 and 2010, also supports the deal. He said he does not view it in terms of whether Iran can be trusted, but whether the regime recognizes that a deal is in its own interest.
“I would say there is a consensus among the leadership, and the consensus is, `We like to stay in power. We like our palaces. … We’ve seen the alternatives in Egypt and Tunisia,” where established regimes have been toppled, Limbert said.
He said it’s a mistake to be overly pessimistic about the prospects for a deal.
“If we and the Iranians could never agree, then Victor and I and all our colleagues would still be in Tehran,” he said.
Limbert said the intensity of the hostage crisis created a particularly poisonous relationship. Although the hostages were largely unaware, the hostage crisis dominated the American consciousness, as images of blindfolded hostages were broadcast nightly. A failed attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980 resulted in the deaths of eight American servicemen. President Jimmy Carter’s inability to resolve the crisis contributed to his defeat in the 1980 elections.
“The problem has been that our reality has been for the last 34 years that anything the other side proposed, you could never accept because by definition it had to be bad for us, because otherwise why would they propose it?” Limbert said.
For other hostages, though, their experience has led them to the conclusion that attempting to negotiate and expecting Iran to live up to its end of the bargain is a losing proposition. Sgt. Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann, 56, of St. Louis, then a Marine sergeant, remembers clearly being told by his captors that their goal was to use the hostages to humiliate the American government, and he suspects this interim deal is in that vein.
“It just hurts. We negotiated for 444 days and not one time did they agree to anything … and here they beg for us to negotiate and we do,” he said. “It’s hard to swallow. We negotiate with our enemies and stab our allies in the back. That doesn’t seem good.”
The deal may also have a direct effect on some of the hostages who have long fought to sue the Iranian government for damages. The new agreement calls for $4.2 billion in frozen Iranian assets to be released, which could make it more difficult to collect a judgment on any successful lawsuit.
“And what do we get out of it?” asked Barnes. “A lie saying, `We’re not going to make plutonium.’ It’s a win-win for them and it’s a lose-lose for us.”
Associated Press writer Gene Johnson contributed to this report from Seattle.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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