In April 1980, while I and my American embassy colleagues were doing time in Tehran as “guests of the Ayatollah,” I met Ali Khamene’i, now the supreme leader of Iran, who then held a powerful position as the leader of Friday prayers in Tehran. As captive and captor, we were not about to have a free political discussion. Moreover, whatever Khamene’i’s real feelings about the hostage-taking, he and others in authority were caught in a tide of emotion and political opportunism that had swept away any Iranian who questioned the wisdom of holding us. It was pointless to argue with him about what was happening. Instead I attempted to shame him, pointing out that as an Iranian, his own traditions of hospitality and code of conduct would never accept what some of his compatriots were doing to us. Khamene’i got the point, and found himself, in effect, rationalizing and almost apologizing for what “others” had done.
When I consider the this week’s meetings in Geneva between Iranian negotiators and representatives of the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council, that exchange stays fresh in my mind. Thirty years ago, Ali Khamene’i and I both came to our encounter with grievances – I against our captors and those who supported them and he against decades of American support for an oppressive Iranian monarchy. By now, our two countries should have dealt with those feelings. We haven’t. Instead, American-Iranian relations have been trapped in a downward spiral of threats, insults, accusations, and sterile rhetoric.