The US and Iran must move past the politics of vengeance and enmity.
November 4 marks the 40th anniversary of the US hostage crisis when 52 diplomats of the American embassy in Iran were held captive for 444 days. The consequences of that misguided decision by a small group of revolutionary zealots are still unfolding in front of our eyes in the ever-worsening Iran-US relations.
Iran has never apologised, and the US is still taking revenge through draconian sanctions now impacting the lives of ordinary Iranians. According to the latest Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the sanctions are cutting “access to essential medicine...thereby threatening the health of millions of Iranians."
It remains a question as to why the leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, accepted the decision by a group of revolutionary students and later justified it in his interview with Mike Wallace of CBS “60 Minute” as a decision by “35 million population of Iran.” It never was.
According to early reports, Khomeini did not approve of the move until three days later. He then used the crisis as a means of putting pressure on the US president, Jimmy Carter, to release the assets of the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had gone to the US for medical consultation.
In the interview, Khomeini gives permission to Wallace to “go and visit the hostages.” Yet the students denied him access.
It seems odd that Khomeini, that single-minded leader of the revolution, who had managed to shift the mighty Shah of Iran from the throne, and whose word has never been crossed, should allow a bunch of young students to dictate foreign policy to him.
Apart from the devastating impact on the hostages and their families the worst aspect of the US hostage saga for Iranians was that the Islamic Republic sold it as the wish of the masses, and celebrated in stage-managed demonstrations annually.
The anti-American fever was high but apart from a small circle of hot-headed revolutionaries, no Iranian wanted to take American diplomats hostage.
Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan resigned, and his relatively moderate cabinet fell. Abolhassan Bani Sadr who was the president during the crisis, has controversially alleged that Khomeini “struck a deal” with President Ronald Reagan’s campaign to delay the release of hostages to coincide with his election.
Gary Sick who was Carter's chief aide on Iran during the hostage crisis has made similar allegations.
Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the five students who says he “carefully choreographed” the take-over the American embassy has regretted it.
“We took the Americans hostage for 14 months, but then we became hostages of that incident for  years,” he told the Guardian. Blindfolding the American hostages, was our first mistake, Asgharzadeh admitted. “We never thought it would lead to cold war between the US and Iran.”
So, the story of the US hostages and the failure of endless, fruitless negotiations was never clear-cut but it permanently damaged US-Iran relations.
The present leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still regards America as the “Great Satan” and bans negotiations. Iranians blame the US for the CIA imposed coup of 1953 and later the eight-year Iraqi war against Iran which started during the hostage crisis.
Likewise, Americans have for four decades viewed Iran through the prism of the US embassy siege of 1979. The US sanctions and later maximum pressure campaign have never ceased since.
Perhaps the only successful attempt at breaking the deadlock came with the signing of the international nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2015.
Yet in May 2018 the Trump administration formally withdrew from the deal. Since then Iran’s economy and Iranian life have been overwhelmed by the reimposition of economic sanctions including “secondary sanctions” on non-US entities that conduct financial or commercial transactions with Iran.
The US Administration’s claims of making “humanitarian exemptions” have been rejected.
HRW found that the sanctions “are causing unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens afflicted with a range of diseases and medical conditions… including leukaemia, epidermolysis bullosa…or epilepsy, and individuals with chronic eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.”
Decades later, it seems policies based on revenge and counter-revenge are causing pain to ordinary people. Politicians in Iran and the US have failed to learn lessons from the coup of 1953 or the revolution of 1979.
Even in this anniversary, they have been exchanging insults. A former leader of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, reportedly praised the “spontaneous move by the students” and encouraged “more moves like that by the young.”
The former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright had the courage to acknowledge American responsibility in the coup of 1953 as well as the “shortsighted” US policy towards Iraq during the war with Iran.
Iranian authorities should now use the anniversary of their hostage-taking as an opportunity to make such gestures of regret to the former US hostages.
Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh is a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran and Afghanistan. Formerly she was a BBC journalist and UN spokesperson and director of communication.
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