The Washington Post, March 17, 1989
“It’s too bad about your friend,” Iran’s ambassador to Damascus nodded gravely. “He is innocent. They are all innocent as individuals. It is a very unfortunate situation.”
The friend was Terry Anderson. The speaker was Ali Akhbar Mohtashami, the man U.S. intelligence claimed held the power of life and death, freedom or captivity, over Anderson and his fellow hostages.
It was May 1985, and I had sought out Khomeini’s man in Damascus to hear Iran’s perspective on the terrorism plaguing the United States.
Intelligence sources claimed Mohtashami was the conduit for the Lebanese terrorists’ money and weapons. The office where we sat was the place where many of the attacks allegedly had been planned.
A leader of the revolt against the shah, the Iranian ambassador held a deep-seated hatred of all things American. Visitors immediately saw one of the reasons why. His right hand was a carefully crafted rubber fake. Several fingers from his left hand were also missing. They had been blown off when the ambassador opened a booby-trapped Koran that arrived shortly after the U.S. Marine barracks bombing.
Mohtashami blamed the CIA for that and much more.
“Let me tell you clearly that I have had 20 years of struggle against the American intervention in our countries,” he replied when asked about his role in the violence.
Nor was he ready to abandon that struggle: “We think that as long as America as a superpower looks to Israel in a special way and prefers it to all other countries, and until the United States can be nonaligned in the Middle East, there will be difficulties.”
Mohtashami had just finished praising me for my interest in the Shiites’ views when I pointed out the irony that Terry Anderson, a reporter who had written extensively about the plight of the Shiites, was now their prisoner.
“Yes, it is too bad about your friend and the rest,” Mohtashami repeated, his black clerical robes rustling as he showed me to the door. “They are suffering for the policy of your government, just as others still suffer until that policy changes.”
By yesterday, Terry Anderson had been suffering for 1,460 days and nights. Yesterday was his fourth anniversary in captivity.
He and the eight other Americans and half-dozen Europeans held with him are victims of the Reagan administration’s blundering and naivete’; victims of a policy that made enemies of Lebanese Moslems who once looked to the United States with hope; victims of a government that criticizes the PLO for attacks on Israeli occupation troops in Lebanon but remains silent about Israeli bombing raids that injure schoolchildren. Most of all, they are victims of an apathetic American public and a White House that has tried hard to make the nation forget.
But they are also victims of an Iranian leadership and its Lebanese surrogates who vent their anger against a handful of innocents who remained in Beirut to help.
“Let there be no hostility except against wrongdoers,” orders the Koran. Yet a reporter who risks his life telling the Shiites’ story becomes a victim of their wrath; a republic based on a religion that preaches compassion keeps innocent teachers chained in isolation.
Terry Anderson is the longest-serving hostage. Each time a ray of hope for his release appears it is quickly eclipsed: by Oliver North’s bungled arms-for-hostages exchange; by the mistaken downing of the Iran Air passenger jet; and now by the Salman Rushdie affair.
Just when it seemed that Iran might be ready to exchange the hostages for renewed trade ties with the West, Tehran has lurched back toward isolation.
In the murky world of Iran’s internal politics, it is a victory for radicals, a victory most of all for Ali Akhbar Mohtashami. Today the man whose rubber hand daily reinforces his hatred of America is Iran’s interior minister, leader of those who remain determined to spread the revolution and punish the United States.
Mohtashami has the power to demonstrate the compassion and justice of the religion he serves as a high priest. Yet four years after speaking of the hostages’ innocence, he appears no closer to intervening on their behalf. It is, indeed, “a very unfortunate situation.”
The writer was a CBS News Middle East correspondent from 1980 to 1985.