Futile handshakes of those kept hostage by Iran's past

Bringing together captor and captive was, to put it mildly, a little exotic
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS meant to be a meeting of minds. On the right sat Abbas Abdi, one of the Iranians who organised the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 when Washington admitted the recently deposed Shah to America for medical treatment. On the left sat Barry Rosen, one of the US hostages held captive by Mr Abdi's Iranians for 444 days. Mr Abdi was dressed in a-la-mode revolutionary clothes; he was unshaven, sporting shaded glasses and an open-neck brown shirt. Mr Rosen could have walked straight out of Manhattan in his dark business suit and red, patterned tie.

The television crews fought for position - here, after all, was a story anyone could understand, a piece of theatre for which any journalist would give up a languid Paris afternoon. Would the Good Guy shake hands with the Bad Guy? The reporters decided at once that Mr Abdi was the criminal just as Mr Rosen was the American innocent abroad. So had some of the audience.

The two men - for whom one felt more and more sorry throughout the afternoon - had been brought together in Paris last Friday by the so-called "Centre for World Dialogue" under the chairmanship of Eric Rouleau, former Le Monde correspondent in Tehran and ex-French ambassador to Tunis (of whom more later). Scattered amid the audience were members of the Iranian opposition, along with a number of blue-shirted and plain-clothes security men - just in case the meeting of minds turned out to be a little premature. True, President Khatami of Iran had talked of respect for the "American people". True, President Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright thought that it was time for warmer relations. But bringing together captor and captive was, to put it mildly, a little exotic.

Mr Abdi's speech was as predictable as it appeared to be sincere. He wanted to talk about past US misdeeds in Iran, of the CIA's successful plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadeq in 1953, of the decades of American- backed dictatorship by the Shah and his cruel Savak secret police. The US, he reminded us, had never recognised the Islamic revolution - indeed, only months before the deposed Shah arrived in New York, senior Iranian military officers were planning a counter-coup that would be launched with a series of code-words broadcast on Voice of America.

But already some members of the audience were in revolt. A woman interrupted to protest at the 1988 prison massacre of up to 20,000 Iranian opponents of the regime. When she refused to obey Mr Rouleau's thunderous instruction to leave the room, she was physically ejected by the strong-armed men. A younger, less passive demonstrator - also an Iranian - was dragged shouting from the auditorium as Mr Rouleau looked on in fury. But Mr Abdi watched all this with a half-smile. "I would like to have replied to them," he said later, having clearly misunderstood the sort of dialogue Mr Rouleau had in mind.

His love for Iran, Mr Rosen assured us, was demonstrated by the name he gave his daughter: the Persian name "Ariana". He had once been a peace corps volunteer in Iran. His captivity (he was a press officer in America's Tehran embassy in 1979) had been a personal trauma but he had to put resentment aside. But no matter how they rationalised the embassy takeover, Iranians must - "if only to themselves" - admit that it was unjustified.

Mr Rosen, needless to say, was optimistic. Iran had "suffered deeply", he said. "But I believe that two decades of animosity between our two countries is coming to an end. The past can't be made to go away - and shouldn't. But there could be a new beginning."

This was, no doubt, earnestly meant. But it sounded a bit like a Clinton or Albright speech; the old contrast of opposites to produce sincerity. Mr Abdi responded carefully. Mr Rosen had been held hostage for 444 days - but Iran had been held hostage for 25 years.

There were more interruptions. A man asked why he had not been told that the meeting was open to all members of the public. "You no longer have the floor," Mr Rouleau bawled at him. But he allowed an American reporter for Fox television to ramble on about how he (the reporter) thought Mr Abdi could "do better" in his replies.

Then an Iranian - a lawyer - gently asked for Mr Abdi's response to the torture of his client, the former Iranian Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Amir Entezam, by Iranian secret policemen. His torture, the lawyer claimed, followed interrogation by none other than Mr Abdi himself. Mr Rouleau tried desperately to move to another question - until we at the back shouted for a response from Mr Abdi (who denied all knowledge of the affair, adding that he was "glad" the lawyer hadn't accused him of torture).

Whose idea was the US embassy siege, Mr Abdi was asked? Why was it undertaken when the Iranian people were against it? What were the contacts between the Iranian clerics and the US administration at this time? Mr Rouleau, who was turning pomposity into an art form, announced that Mr Abdi would only answer one question - and was put in his place when Mr Abdi said he would answer all three. The embassy takeover was a "spontaneous" act, he told us. Perhaps, we wondered, Mr Abdi also believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

And then we noticed an Iranian woman sitting close by, her hands clasped together, staring at Mr Abdi. She worked in a Paris shop and, by chance, we knew her. Her brother and sister were killed in the 1988 prison massacres, she said quietly. Abdi was the deputy to the prosecutor at the time. "I just came to see his face," she said. So we asked Mr Abdi whether he'd been number two when they hanged those prisoners in their thousands. He had been, he replied, director of the Minister of Justice's "Social Research" department at the time - someone was getting their facts wrong.

But the television crews got what they wanted. The Good Guy shook hands with the Bad Guy. The theatre was over. But Mr Abdi had said Mr Rosen should not take his captivity personally. And Mr Rosen had said he did take it personally. So what they had to agree on - such as Mr Abdi's job when they hanged all those prisoners back in 1988 - remained a mystery.

What they disagreed on was all too clear: the meaning of history and the power of memory, personal and political abuse, East and West. It's going to be a long, long time, it seems, before Mr Khatami and an American president can shake hands.