Ordeal of hostage-taking began more than a decade ago in Iran Tragedy in 3 acts had its origin in Islamic fundamentalism


JERUSALEM -- The tragic hostage ordeal that appeared to have ended yesterday with the release of Terry Anderson began more than a decade ago in Iran, where a primitive, brutish form of politics was reinvented.

The experience left three American hostages dead and the lives of hundreds of friends and relatives scarred forever. It alerted Americans to the vulnerability of caring about the life of a single citizen. The ordeal brought down one president, Jimmy Carter, practically disgraced another, Ronald Reagan, and bedeviled President Bush as well.

The conclusion of the experience was influenced by disparate events throughout the Middle East, including revolutions, several wars and a prison escape in Kuwait.

But it was in Iran that the awful drama's basic plot was worked out and first performed. If this is the end, it will have been a drama in three acts that has included many violent, terrifying scenes, involving great villains, scoundrels and some quiet heroes.

Act One opened more than a decade ago, in November 1979 when several thousand young Iranians scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, captured the American personnel there and held them for 444 days.

They taught that absolutism worked. All the evidence was that holding Western hostages guaranteed attention for a cause. A large, attentive audience of the disaffected absorbed the lesson. Every group that was outgunned or felt misunderstood or mistreated by the West learned that the taking of hostages could humble the powerful -- even the United States.

Many elements for the rest of the drama were present at the start.

* Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian spiritual leader, was awakening a politically dormant part of the Muslim world, the Shiites. They accounted for almost all Iran as well as a majority of the inhabitants of southern Lebanon.

* Supporters of the ayatollah held the United States responsible for the brutality of the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, whom they had overthrown. The United States was blamed for every problem in the region, and whatever was not attributed to the Americans was said to be the fault of Israel, Washington's chief ally in the region.

* For the United States, the most daunting problem was figuring out who had influence over the hostage-takers.

* A difference in values guaranteed the two sides would misunderstand and mistrust each other. One side warned of grave consequences if any of the hostages were harmed; the other placed an entirely different value on the individual and on life, for it believed in martyrdom, in which to die on behalf of Islam would guarantee a glorious afterlife.

All the ingredients to promote enduring hostility thus were brought together: a downtrodden minority; the discovery of someone to blame; the chaos of revolution; and a clash of cultures that ensured that neither side would comprehend the concerns of the other.

After 444 days, the hostages in Tehran were released. None of the captors' original demands were met -- the return of the shah for trial, the confiscation of his assets in the United States, and the delivery of arms bought by the shah's government. No matter.

The shah was dead. The hostage-takers had effectively ended the career of President Carter. Within Iran, they had helped solidify the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini and his fundamentalist brand of Islam.

The Lebanon experience

Act Two opened in Lebanon in 1982.

Israel was carrying out a full-scale invasion of its northern neighbor and had the Palestine Liberation Organization as its target, and especially the PLO's headquarters in Beirut, the capital.

Israeli forces pushed northward through Shiite villages of the South where they were warmly welcomed with flowers by inhabitants tired of Palestinian domination.

But within a few months, when the Israelis showed no signs of leaving, the flowers were replaced with bombs. Israel's campaign gave rival Shiite militias a common enemy -- Israel, the French and U.S. soldiers brought in as part of the multinational force to help restore order. The religious fundamentalism being promoted by Iran flourished in the fertile ground of Lebanese resentment.

One sign of Iran's success was the appearance of a militia called Hezbollah, the Party of God. Hezbollah called for Lebanon to become an Islamic republic -- like Iran. It called for holy war against Israel, and for holy war against the U.S. -- again, like Iran.

Another group, the Islamic Jihad, made its violent entrance a short time later. Its calling card was a car bomb that demolished the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 63 people.

Islamic Jihad focused its efforts against the powers that could prevent Lebanon from imitating the Iranian model: the United States, France and Israel. In October 1983, separate bombs killed 240 Marines at their headquarters in Beirut and 58 French soldiers at their barracks. A month later, a bomb killed 62 at an Israeli headquarters in the southern Lebanon city of Tyre.

The strategy seemed to work. Israeli forces searched for a face-saving formula for a further withdrawal; the U.S. Marines and the French eventually left Lebanon in greater chaos than when they arrived.

Distant events then unexpectedly gave Hezbollah a new cause: In early 1984, the government of Kuwait imprisoned 17 Shiites belonging to a radical group supported by Iran. They were held responsible for a series of bombings in Kuwait City, including attacks outside the French and U.S. embassies.

Hezbollah demanded they be released, and it began to enforce its demand with a new tactic, one proven in the past to attract attention and to get results: taking hostages.

The long season

The long season of kidnapping began in March 1984. Although some targets were obviously more valuable than others, everyone was fair game. One of the first to be abducted was William Buckley, said to be the senior Central Intelligence Agency official for the Middle East. A journalist for the TV network CNN was taken at about the same time.

Once again, the politically weak could appear strong and the powerful humbled. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

The kidnappers were aided by the chaos that had engulfed Lebanon. A decade-long civil war had left the central government powerless.

There was a power vacuum that the hostage-takers exploited. No authority existed to police them. It is doubtful anyone actually wanted to.

Syria and Iran were united in hostility toward the United States. The taking of American hostages was a safe way to needle a superpower, as Iran's earlier experience had shown. As long as the identity of the hostage-takers remained unclear, the kidnappings could continue without fear of reprisals.

Maybe the worst year was 1985. An American Roman Catholic priest was kidnapped in January. Terry Anderson was abducted in March. Alec Collett, a British journalist, was taken the same month; a year later his captors would announce that he had been killed.

A third American was abducted in May, a fourth in June. Islamic Jihad announced in October that William Buckley was dead.

The year 1986 was little better. U.S. warplanes bombed Libya, and shortly afterward the bodies of two more British hostages and one American were dumped in Beirut. Five more Westerners were abducted before the end of the year.

Two people were released in 1985, and another was given his freedom in 1986. At the time, the releases were ascribed to efforts by an envoy of Great Britain's Anglican Church, Terry Waite. But an entirely different set of events was responsible, events that became known as part of the Iran-contra scandal.

To secure the release of hostages, the Reagan administration provided weapons to Iran. The scheme eventually collapsed -- Iran objected to the price and quality of one of the shipments, and details of the exchanges became known to an outraged Congress. In the meantime, the hostage-taking continued. In 1987 Mr. Waite was abducted.

As the only party to proclaim it would never negotiate, the United States was the only party to be embarrassed by doing so.

In 1989 Israeli commandos helicoptered to southern Lebanon and kidnapped the man Israel said was a leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid.

To get hostages back, Israel's government decided to take a hostage of its own.

Changing needs

But hostage-taking was about to go out of style. Act Two ended and Act Three began because the characters' needs began to change.

Hezbollah suddenly lost the need to press for the release of the Shiites imprisoned in Kuwait. They had escaped during the Iraqi invasion.

Most important were changes inside Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini had died in 1989 and was succeeded by Hashemi Rafsanjani, who concluded that to rescue his country's economy -- and to secure his own power -- Iran needed closer ties with Western Europe and the United State.

By June, the first rumors surfaced that the hostage-takers -- and Syria and Iran -- were seeing their captives as liabilities. In August, British hostage John McCarthy was freed with a message that his Lebanese captors wanted to hold talks with Javier Perez de Cuellar, then United Nations secretary-general.

Mr. Perez de Cuellar and a special envoy became involved. The releases began. Then they accelerated.

But they are not yet over, and Hezbollah's goodwill is not assured:

Two Germans remain in captivity. Israel, meanwhile, is still awaiting word on four of its soldiers. It also continue to hold about 300 Lebanese prisoners, including Sheik Obeid.

Israel is anything but reluctant to give them up. Its fear is that it will be left out of the exchanges. Once the Western hostages are freed, the attention of the United States and Europe will shift elsewhere -- making it more difficult for Israel to negotiate a swap on its own.

Mr. Anderson's reappearance yesterday, after 6 1/2 years in captivity, was living proof that the latest act of the hostage drama is coming to a close. Whatever value the hostages once represented to their captors, the value had begun to fall.

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