WASHINGTON – Former hostage and diplomat Bruce Laingen,82,said he did not celebrate Thursday's 25th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran,but he did wear a tie with yellow ribbons on it.
At a World Affairs Council discussion with high school journalists,Laingen of Bethesda,Md.,said he prefers to remember Jan. 20,1981,the day the United States released $8 billion in Iranian assets,and he was freed after 444 days in solitary confinement.
On Nov. 4,1979,militant Iranian students,furious that the United States had allowed ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to be treated for cancer in New York,seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran,Iran's capital. The students held 52 people,including Laingen,hostage for more than a year.
“It is rare that Americans rally around for a single cause,but they did,for me and my colleagues,” Laingen said,referring to the many people who tied yellow ribbons to trees,poles and other places while waiting for the hostages' release,which came on the day of President Ronald Reagan's inauguration.
Inspired by the 1973 Tony Orlando and Dawn hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Laingen's wife,Penne Laingen,made the symbol of the yellow ribbon popular by refusing to remove one from an oak tree in her front yard until her husband returned. Today,yellow ribbons are often used to show support for U.S. troops or people who are missing.
As President George W. Bush prepares to begin his second term,U.S. relations with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries gives new context to Laingen's experience. Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil.”
Council managing director Kalpana Simhan said the group is nonpartisan and wants students to be aware of what happens outside the United States – regardless of who is president.
“Our goal was to get these students to think critically about world affairs,” she said. “We wanted to have history come alive for them.”
And the students from five Washington-area schools did seem to think critically as they questioned Laingen. It was clear they had studied the event.
One male student asked Laingen to compare Bush's re-election to Reagan's defeat of then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Others asked what why U.S.-Iran relations have not improved after 25 years.
In Tehran Thursday,students gathered at the former U.S. Embassy – now the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards who enforce Iran's Islamic Revolution – by the thousands to burn American flags and protest Bush's policies.
Laingen,president of the American Academy of Diplomacy,said the United States shares mutual interests with Iran and the two countries need an open dialogue about Iran's nuclear weapons program.
In answer to questions,Laingen said President Bush's use of the term “axis of evil” is incorrect in speaking about Iran. He said contentious relations between Iraq and Iran prevents them from becoming a “great landmass of terror” opposed to the United States.
“I don't use the term ‘evil' myself very often,” Laingen said. “It's the kind of term that diplomats try to avoid.”
The World Affairs Council is a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works to increase citizens' understanding of international issues. The American Academy of Diplomacy is a group of former diplomats who work to improve diplomacy.