MOUNT DESERT, Maine — Moorhead Kennedy still remembers in vivid detail the day three decades ago when he and more than 60 other Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.
Working as an economist for the U.S. State Department, Kennedy had been up late the night before analyzing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power development. The next morning, as usual, he was wearing a coat and tie when one of the embassy’s military guards told everyone within earshot that they quickly had to take shelter. Hundreds of student protesters had gathered outside the compound and were starting to force their way inside.
“A Marine came down the hall shouting ‘Everyone upstairs! There’s been a break-in!’” Kennedy said, sitting recently in the living room of his home on Mount Desert Island, near the village of Somesville.
The former diplomat, now 79, said Iranian students had briefly taken over the American compound in Tehran months before, when the shah fled the country during the revolution. But that occupation was only temporary, he said, with the students soon leaving and allowing the staff stationed there to continue working as before.
When the embassy was swarmed again by anti-American protesters on Nov. 4, 1979, he thought they would leave as they had done nine months earlier.
Kennedy and some others took refuge in a vault as protesters swarmed in but soon grew concerned that the building might be set on fire and so surrendered to the militants.
A few days after the takeover, when a fellow hostage suggested to Kennedy that he could be more comfortable if he took off his jacket and tie, it sunk in that their detention might last for some time.
“I just couldn’t believe we weren’t about to be released,” Kennedy said. “I was awfully slow to catch on to the new reality.”
During the crisis, about a dozen hostages were released a few weeks after the embassy takeover and another was allowed to return home in July 1980 for medical reasons.
Kennedy was one of 52 Americans who ended up spending two Christmases in captivity in Iran, an ordeal that in turn captivated Americans nationwide as it became a daily saga in newspapers and on network television. For 444 days, until President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981, the remaining hostages were held as prisoners by a regime that wanted to lash out at the United States.
Looking back all these years later, Kennedy said some of the domestic and international issues that affected Iran in 1979 continue today.
During a recent interview, Kennedy recalled that some of what had incited the Iranians before the crisis was factual, but others things were not. It was true, he said, that in 1953 the Central Intelligence Agency helped the shah depose the popularly elected prime minister and impose himself as absolute ruler. What was not true was the rumor that, 25 years later, the Americans had dug tunnels underneath the embassy that led throughout the city.
One of the first things one of Kennedy’s captors asked after taking over the embassy was where the tunnels were located, he said.
What helped spark the protests was the decision by the United States to allow the deposed shah to enter the country to receive cancer treatments. This decision fed the popular view in Iran that America continued to support the fallen dictator and would try to have him restored as Iran’s ruler, he said.
“It was all very paranoid,” Kennedy said. “You can see the psychology there. They wanted a cause to rally the revolution.”
Treatment of the hostages during the 444-day ordeal varied, with some of the military and intelligence personnel in the group getting the worst of it, Kennedy said. One military man was told that his young son in the U.S. would be kidnapped and tortured if he did not cooperate, he said. Others were beaten.
The embassy takeover occurred the day before Kennedy turned 49.
“I spent my 49th birthday tied up, blindfolded, and tied to a chair,” he said.
At times all the hostages feared for their lives. They were subjected to a mock execution three months into their ordeal, he said, but then the harsh treatment eased a bit.
“We were quite comfortable in the embassy,” Kennedy recalled. “We could read all we wanted. Little things were important.”
But soon a big thing disrupted their relative comfort. President Jimmy Carter became acutely aware how the hostage crisis would affect his 1980 re-election bid, Kennedy said, and decided he had to take action to resolve the problem.
That led to the disastrous rescue attempt in April 1980. Operation Eagle Claw failed after military helicopters flying in from a Navy carrier in the Persian Gulf encountered sand storms. During a refueling operation on the ground, one of them crashed into a military support airplane, killing eight servicemen.
“He thought he could use it to win, you see,” Kennedy said of Carter’s approach to the crisis. “I think he never should have co-opted us the way he did.”
Kennedy said the Iranians responded to the rescue attempt by dividing the hostages into groups for a time and spreading them out among different locations in Iran. Later on, the group was held at a prison in Tehran up until a few weeks before their release.
“That was a very discouraging moment,” Kennedy said when the hostages realized that months after being taken, they literally were being imprisoned.
Three factors helped convince the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s new leader, to free the hostages, Kennedy said: The shah died in July 1980, Iraq invaded Iran in September of that year, and Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan. Concerns in Iran about not having international diplomatic contacts as it fought a war with Iraq, he said, likely was the biggest reason they were freed.
“That’s what got us out,” he said. “The Iranians were isolated. They realized they had no friends.”
Kennedy said that, though he does not condone the embassy takeover, there is a lesson to be learned from the experience. The United States, he said, needed and still needs to do a better job of listening to some of the more popular representative voices in the Middle East.
Carter, he said, did not do a good job of considering the views of average Iranian citizens when dealing with the shah. Carter said he supported human rights, but when it came to Iran’s monarch, he backed a repressive dictator who did not have popular support.
“Jimmy Carter was guilty of something the Middle East has always hated and despised, and that was hypocrisy,” Kennedy said. “I think he totally misunderstood where he was going with Iran.”
He gave Carter credit for working hard after losing the election to negotiate the hostages’ freedom. The reason they were held until Reagan took office was simple, he said.
“They didn’t want to hand us to Jimmy Carter,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy did not have any more praise for Reagan. He said that by the time the hostages were debriefed, two months after they had returned home, it was obvious to him that the Reagan administration was no better prepared.
“There wasn’t any real interest in us,” Kennedy said. “Reagan thought it was Carter’s issue. They had no idea what to do if Carter hadn’t gotten us home.”
Kennedy said that, in many ways, he “grew up” during his days in captivity. He majored in oriental studies at Princeton University and got a graduate degree in Islamic law at Harvard, but it was the hostage crisis that gave him insight into the anti-Americanism of the Middle East.
“I think the [Iranian] hostage story is still a valid one,” he said. “I’ve kind of seen the other side of the mountain.”
Kennedy, who retired from the State Department soon after the ordeal to become an author and expert on the Middle East, said some of the domestic and international issues that affected Iran 30 years ago are still prevalent. The country still wrestles with the tensions between its authoritarian and democratic impulses, he said, and still is interested in nuclear technology.
Iranians, including leaders who have been less critical of America, have long wanted nuclear power, according to Kennedy. He said he would prefer it if Iran remained non-nuclear, but thinks the country will realize its goal sooner or later. When it does, he said, Iran still won’t pose as big a threat to global security as the belligerent animosity between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons.
The approach of scolding and lecturing Iran for pursuing nuclear capabilities, he said, will not resolve the issue.
“All that doesn’t help,” Kennedy said.
Strained relations between the two countries sometimes hurts American interests, Kennedy said. The United States missed out by not being able to look to Iran for assistance when it invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, he said.
“They would have been a great help to us,” he said. “[Afghanistan] is right on their border.”
As for encouraging democratic reforms in Iran, the best strategy the United States can pursue is to keep quiet and stay out of the debate. If America expresses support for any politician or movement in Iran, he said, it gives the hard-liners an opening to characterize the opposition as a puppet of America. Such accusations carry a lot of weight in a country that has had bad relations with the United States for more than half a century.
“These are a proud people and an ancient empire,” Kennedy said. “It’s not up to us to tell them how to run their country.”
BDN photographer Gabor Degre contributed to this story.