Ambassador John Limbert, who was held hostage in Tehran for 444 days and later became deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, poses with his Iranian wife Parvaneh at their home in Arlington, Virginia. (Larry Luxner)
The recent release of the captivating film “Argo” has compelled Iranians to confront an ugly episode from their past – an episode that many had hoped would vanish into historical amnesia. Instead, the events depicted in the film have made many Iranians uncomfortable.
The reasons are interesting. Over the past decades, many Iranians have distanced themselves from the outrages of 1979-81 and accepted a version of events that claims: 1) The November 1979 embassy attack and the subsequent holding of American diplomats happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away, and have no relevance to current events and real people; 2) The Iranian hostage-holders, inspired by natural kindness, treated their captives with great consideration and humanity; 3) The conditions prevailing in 1979 and the imminent danger to the Islamic Revolution justified the students’ actions.
The film, even allowing for its cinematic liberties, has put this narrative under a spotlight and forced Iranians to confront a nastier reality. Beginning in 1997, with the election of President Mohammad Khatami, some of the former hostage-takers emerged from political obscurity as born-again “reformers”. They emerged mouthing phrases such as “rule of law” and “civil society”. We witnessed the strange spectacle of embassy veterans such as Mir-Damad, Ebtekar, Khatami (the former president’s brother) and others urging respect for the same free expression they had helped to smash in the fury of 1979-81. Their own actions – smearing nationalists and other opponents as “imperialist agents” and creating an atmosphere of hysteria and intolerance – guaranteed the triumph of the same extremists and thugs whom they now denounced as opponents of democracy.
The smartest among the group, now older and more experienced, realized – as many of us do – that as 20 year olds we often act on emotions and absolutes. They realized they had created an atmosphere of intolerance, brutality, and lawlessness and had tarnished the name of an ancient civilization. The realized that opportunistic politicians had taken advantage of this atmosphere to take over the revolutionary movement and silence dissenting voices.
Even so, it was hard for them to say publicly they were wrong and to admit, in a Persian euphemism, that thirty years ago they had “eaten sugar”. But a few came close, at least in private, to admitting the damage they had done. Others, however, have never faced reality and stick to a long-discredited line. Just a few weeks ago, on December 6, former hostage-taker spokesperson Massoumeh Ebtekar and her fellow jailer Ruholamini appeared on Iranian television to proclaim that seizing the embassy was “a glorious movement” and to proclaim their undying support for Iranian democracy.
Even President Ahamadinezhad has accepted this strange version of events. In late September of this year, at a meeting with American academics in New York, he said he regretted that damaging “negative preconceptions” were preventing better Iranian-American relations. At that meeting I urged him to deal with those negatives (as President Khatami had done) by putting an end to the annual Tehran commemorations of the November 4 attack, which present that event as something positive and worthy of pride. I told him, “As long as you continue to stage those demonstrations, there’s no chance that Americans’ hostile view of Iran and the Islamic Republic will disappear.”
In response, he said I had no grounds for complaint because I and my colleagues had been “well treated” by our captors. In other words, his version of events has put aside much of what “Argo” – allowing for its Hollywood exaggerations — has forced him and his compatriots to remember: the guns to the head, the mock execution, the isolation, lengthy solitary confinement, displaying a blindfolded and bound captive to an angry mob, and the long-term psychological and physical damage.
When “Argo” appeared, some Iranians expressed outrage that the movie portrayed them as violent, brutal, and fanatical. One writer claimed that the reference to the film “Planet of the Apes” suggested that Iranians were less than human. They pointed out that Iranians are civilized and cultured people and not at all as shown in the movie. Though they are certainly cultured, there is no denying that 1979-81 were years of violence, brutality and fanaticism. There is also no denying that the actions of the hostage-holders and their supporters flew in the face of everything that makes Iranians heirs to one of the world’s greatest civilizations.
But deny they have and deny they will. Here lies the greatest achievement of “Argo”. Despite its liberties with history, it contains essential accuracy. It has forced Iranians, who would prefer to believe their soothing version of events, to come face to face with a most disturbing reality. Doing so will not be comfortable, but it may encourage some Iranians, at long last, to deal honestly with an ugly, brutal, and violent event in their own history.
(Read about the inside story of the film here.)