Welcome Back, Great Satan

Bruce Laingen wants to go back to the scene of his 444-day ordeal as a hostage in Iran. He was the ranking U.S. diplomat in Tehran when radical Islamic students seized the embassy, and mobs chanting "Death to America" gathered outside. The standoff ended in January 1981, leaving a curtain of anger between Iran and America that Laingen and fellow captives now hope to lift. Their return on a journey of reconciliation "would be a great, symbolic way to open up relations," says former hostage and embassy spokesman Barry Rosen.

The surprising inspiration for this mission comes from the hostage-takers themselves. Older and mellower now, many of these former firebrands are now key advisers to President Mohammed Khatami, who was elected in 1997 and is now trying to bring Iran out of its isolation. His vice president for the Environment, Massoumeh Ebtakar, was known and generally despised by the American hostages as "Mary," the student translator. Other former radicals now use Tehran's increasingly free and irreverent press to support Khatami's opening to the West, which passed a milestone last week when Khatami visited Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II. "We should destroy the walls of mistrust," says Mohammed Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a leader of the embassy siege who has since softened his opinion of the "Great Satan," America. At a public commemoration of the occupation last November, Asgharzadeh invited the hostages to return--this time "as guests of the Iranian nation."

The former hostages and their captors are already speaking with one voice. They are urging Washington to compromise with Khatami and begin easing sanctions on Iran. While the Clinton administration officially welcomes reconciliation, its public utterances still tend to dwell on Iranian nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism. "The way [the American administration] is playing its hand today is much too cautious," says Laingen, who is now with the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. "People change. People react to the circumstances of the time."

Khatami is a mullah for the 1990s. His trip to Italy was the first visit by a top Iranian leader to Europe in more than 20 years. Wearing his clerical turban and robe, Khatami was chauffeured around in a bright blue Maserati limousine. Ignoring protests by exiles, he cut a billion-dollar deal with French and Italian companies to develop one of Iran's off-shore oil fields. He even dropped a quip about the lack of women on the Rome city council when he met the mayor. For his finale Khatami talked up the prospects for Muslim-Christian rapport with the pope and told the pontiff he would leave Italy with "beautiful memories."

Khatami backers have less fond recollections of what happened after the Islamic revolution in 1979. Some former hostage-takers now say their hopes for a "modern" Islam began to fade as the late Ayatollah Khomeini exploited crises to impose his own authoritarian will. They don't blame the imam himself, but say that what began as a brief protest at the embassy was transformed by the regime into a siege that helped kill hopes for democracy. Then Iran and Iraq went to war, and Khomeini kept the fight alive for eight years. "The war changed the rules of the game," says Asgharzadeh, who has become an engineer, shedding his radical chic for pressed pants and a tweed jacket. "It made Iranian society a closed society."

This revisionism does not sit well with Khomeini's hard-line heir, Ayatollah Khamenei. Followers of the new supreme spiritual leader control the secret police, the military and zealous mobs who still embrace strict Islamic law and shun the West. After Asgharzadeh issued his invitation to the Americans, hard-liners "said I was losing my revolutionary fervor," he recalls. "They disrupted some of my speeches, and they beat me up." Unfazed, Asgharzadeh ran as a reformer last month in the first municipal elections in Iranian history, and won a seat on the Tehran city council.

Former hostages believe the conversion to reform is sincere. "Iran is the most democratic authoritarian state in the Middle East," says Rosen, who met face to face last year in Paris with another one of his former captors, Abbas Abdi. "The idea is not to forgive, but to move on." The danger is that the new generation of angry mobs could attack, creating a new setback for Iran's image in America and for Khatami. "I don't want to do that to him," says Rosen. So the Americans will bide their time, awaiting a safer moment for their return.

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