The Iran hostage crisis, the Stasi and why the past cannot be left behind

November 1979: First TIME cover after the seizing of US embassy staff

November 1979: First TIME cover after the seizing of US embassy staff

I ate my first Passover Seder meal recently, as a guest of Rabbi Jonathan Romain at his synagogue. I had had the ingredients and their symbolic meaning on the seder table memorized since that sheet Miss Thick gave me to stick into my O’Level Religious Studies notebook. But sitting in a room full of people re-telling the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and eating the paste that represents the mortar of their slave labour, was quite another experience. I was stunned by the power of this collective act of memory.

One of the guests was attending his first seder for 68 years. I did a quick mental calculation and realised what that meant. His childhood was in the 30s and 40s. Born in Vienna he had come to Britain, alone, on a kindertransport. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust. I couldn’t begin to fathom what he might be feeling at this meal. To think of Jews all over Britain and the world celebrating Passover was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

It was a Jewish émigré from 1930s Hungary, psychiatry Professor Thomas S Tsasz, who said: “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” But looking back at the cruelty of the past and the near present, I increasingly feel there has to be a different option for the wise. That one may feel a responsibility to events and fellow citizens that means you have no right to forgive.

While the Nazi Holocaust is still studied and commemorated, including with the relatively recently created Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, I have been thinking of the new US-Iranian diplomatic row after Washington defied diplomatic protocol, effectively vetoing Tehran’s appointment as UN envoy, Hamid Aboutalebi, by refusing him a US visa.

A State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “Given his role in the events of 1979, which clearly matters profoundly to the American people, it would be unacceptable for the United States to grant this visa.”

She was referring to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981 when, after the fall of the Shah’s regime, revolutionary students stormed the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The hostages endured months of torment including beatings, solitary confinement and even mock executions. Some attempted suicide. Hamid Aboutalebi, Tehran’s nomination, was then a member of the revolutionary student group that held the hostages. He says now he was only a translator and negotiator. It’s a familiar wording used by many who have been subsequently challenged about their involvement in abusive regimes. But Aboutalebi also says he was only brought in to translate on a couple of occasions – a claim apparently backed by some of the hostage takers. He has also previously served as an ambassador to Australia, Italy and Belgium, without controversy, which Iran will no doubt cite in the complaint they lodged with the UN.

For those too young to remember the callous abuse of the Embassy workers unfold on the news month after month, it might be easy to regard the US position as arrogant, but it shouldn’t be. The deep humiliation of Americans and therefore America itself is of course part of the story. It helps explain why US President Obama’s administration – so often deadlocked by Congress, managed so speedily last week to sign a new bill blocking admission of any foreign ambassadors who the US deemed had engaged in “terrorist activity”. However it is possible to appreciate the terrible wrongs of America’s historical imperial interference in Iran, to have great admiration and respect for ordinary Iranians, having travelled in their country and been awed by their generosity and kindness, and yet still understand the moral stand being made about the historical abuse of 52 ordinary people and the unacceptability of such action.

In 2011 I met Dagmar Hovestådt from the Stasi Archives. In East Germany 180 thousand citizens actively but unofficially informed on their colleagues and neighbours. Many have tried hard to play down what they did. She told me how German Federal Laws had been updated 8 times since unification, extending the term for vetting officials in public office for Stasi connections till 2019. The Federal Commissioner for the Archive has to be someone who had been persecuted by the Stasi. ‘The past cannot be left behind,” Hovestadt said.

The wise are those who, with calm determination, know that truth has to come before reconciliation; and forgiveness is another matter.

This article was first published in The Big Issue Magazine: on sale every week in the UK from street vendors. Or by mail or online subscription.

Further reading

Decades later, hostage crisis still haunts US-Iranian relations (Deutsche-Welle English analysis April 2014)

How the Middle East became another planet: Argo, Iran and science fiction

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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