Editor’s note: Moorhead Kennedy was one of 52 Americans who spent two Christmases in captivity in Iran, until Jan. 20, 1981, after Islamist students and militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran. The rescue of some of the hostages was recently fictionalized in the movie “Argo.”
The story of our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, being overrun by terrorists, causing the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador, continues to provoke indignation and political flak. Underlying this tragic episode is the fact that our government seems to have a continuing problem with protecting diplomatic missions.
When I was an embassy officer in Iran in 1979, a critical decision was taken in Washington to admit the exiled shah for medical treatment. As President Jimmy Carter warned, that might lead to a takeover of our Tehran embassy. The Department of State promised us in Tehran in writing that the security of the embassy and its personnel would be reviewed before any such decision was taken. That promise meant nothing.
Meanwhile, in our final week, as mobs chanting imprecations against the United States marched past the embassy, our apprehension grew. “Man,” a Marine said to me, “We’re going to have an Alamo!” Our security officer warned me, “Mike, we’re on our own.” Symptoms of fear mounted within me. My bodily functions went out of whack. Twice, I forgot to lock my safe.
The decision to admit the shah predictably gave an Iranian political action group just the excuse it needed to take over the embassy. It did, and we became hostages.
Fourteen months later, just freed and back in Washington, I asked a senior officer in the Department of State when there would be an investigation of what clearly had gone wrong and how, for the future, to correct it. The important thing now, he replied, is to protect jobs (including his). With great effort, we hostages finally were able to schedule a debriefing, but no more. The briefing went nowhere. No lessons were sought or learned.
The Benghazi tragedy reflects the Department of State’s continuing avoidance of questions and needed answers. At what degree of threat, for example, should you evacuate an embassy? Everyone, no one or just the less essential personnel? How do you determine the degree of threat?
The provisional government of Iran soon sided with the political action group. We hostages, throughout our captivity, were abused in many, and, in some cases, long-lasting ways. There has recently been a suicide.
The foreign service will always face risks and possible casualties. But there are measures that can reduce those risks. The Department of State has ignored these, particularly the most fundamental one.
The most fundamental safeguard is the recognition by the host government that it has an absolute duty to protect a foreign diplomatic mission and, should it fail in this, to make amends to our government and to its personnel for wrongs suffered. And, finally, that the U.S. government will actively pursue governments that violate these fundamental tenets of international law.
Far from amends, our release was dependent on our government’s accepting a virtual ransom note, the Algiers Accords, that the U.S. government would “bar and preclude” lawsuits by former hostages for wrongs suffered. Without that promise, the Iranians said, we would not be released but rather put on trial, with some executed.
The Department of State consistently and successfully has fought efforts in Congress to get around this extortionate demand and to pay us reasonable compensation out of Iranian assets for wrongs suffered. Now, at long last, a bill titled The Justice for the American Diplomats Held Hostage in Tehran Act has been introduced. Co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, D-Maine, it awaits action in the House. A Senate counterpart bill will soon be introduced.
Most astutely, the bill avoids a direct challenge to the Algiers Accords. Instead, compensation will be paid out of a surcharge on fines and penalties paid by companies that do business with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
HR 5796 will offer more than long-deserved compensation. It will help to overcome 30 years of contemptuous violation of international law and morality, and the example of American weakness of which others will take advantage.
Moorhead Kennedy of Mount Desert is a retired foreign service officer, president of the board of Acadia Senior College on Mount Desert Island and president of the Friends of the Maine State Library in Augusta.