RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On this day 25 years ago, Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. In a toast at the Inaugural luncheon, he announced this joyous news.
President RONALD REAGAN: Some thirty minutes ago, the planes bearing our prisoners left Iranian airspace, and they're now free from Iran.
(Soundbite of applause)
MONTAGNE: The prisoners were 52 Americans held captive at the American Embassy in Tehran. In the fervor of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian students had seized the Diplomats and staff and held them and the United States hostage for 444 days. The students demanded the return of the deposed Shah to stand trial. The United States refused, and President Jimmy Carter froze Iran's assets and halted Iranian oil imports. Many months later, Iran agreed to negotiate and set demands, including the release of its assets.
Today we look back at those negotiations, and begin with Warren Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State who led the U.S. Delegation. He remembers intense bargaining.
Mr. WARREN CHRISTOPHER (Former Secretary of State): I certainly had my share of mixed signals from them, and they changed the structure of negotiations a couple of times. One thing to remember is that there is a tradition there in which their asking price is probably quite a lot different than what they're willing to do in the long run.
MONTAGNE: Was that a matter of honor, that, you know, ask for twice what you want to get, and the Americans are in a, sort of different tradition, so there was a clash?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: I would have to say that they felt very strongly about this, that it was dangerous for the hostages right up to the last moment, because the militants were so opposed to their release and thus, the government of Iran had a very difficult time. Ultimately I think they began to understand that the price for keeping them was higher than the price for releasing them.
MONTAGNE: When you say they, they began, the militants began to understand that?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: Ah, yes. This was a very particular time. President Reagan had just won the presidency and part of my role during this last thirteen days while I was in Algiers was to try to persuade the Iranians that they were better off dealing with the Carter Administration and dealing with me. The devil they knew, and what might be coming in after President Reagan had taken office. He had indicated he would take a very hard line with the Iranians, and so I'm not sure how effective that was with them or what persuaded them finally to agree to release the hostages.
MONTAGNE: Sounds like there wasn't a moment where you said exactly one thing to get through to them.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: Well, on the 18th of January, I finally reached an agreement with the Iranians, through the Offices of the Foreign Minister of Algeria, and we finally got down to having done all the details. He said, Now, Mr. Christopher, we can talk about transportation. And to me, that signaled that they were ready to talk about how the hostages would come back from Tehran. They sent two 727s to pick them up. One was loaded with Algerian security people and the other was to bring the hostages back.
I'd always thought the last moments would probably be the most dangerous and it turned out to be that way because a number of the militants were at the airport and tried to prevent their departure. And really until I saw the lights of those two planes approaching the airport in Algiers, and the hostages began to come down from the airplane, that I was sure they were coming home.
The first two down were two women, Ann Swift and Kathryn Koob, and they were followed by the other 50 hostages. And I remember checking off their names, one by one, as they came down the ramp.
MONTAGNE: Why, if, as you say, the Iranians were worried about President Reagan coming into office and what then might happen, why did they release the hostages literally just as Ronald Reagan was being sworn into office? And they deprived President Carter of a moment of the success, even triumph.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER: I don't think anybody knows the exact answer to that. The Iranians, I think, waiting until the last minute before releasing them. They had problems at the airport, so I'm not sure that they held them over until after the Inauguration out of spite or an attempt to show their distaste for President Carter. I don't think we'll ever know that for sure.
MONTAGNE: As Warren Christopher was frantically trying to strike a deal, Mohsen Sazegara was promoting the Iranian line as Head of State Radio. Unlike Warren Christopher, Sazegara doesn't recall that the students tried to delay the hostages' release, but he clearly remembers Iran's demands.
Mr. MOHSEN SAZEGARA (Former Head of Iranian State Radio): The first condition, which was the most important one, was a written document from the United States to say that they would not intervene in Internal Affairs of Iran anymore. Because in those days, we were really angry of the Coupe d'etat on Dr. Mossadegh around 1953, which I call it the biggest mistake of the foreign policy of the United States towards Iran. Of course, at last, the United States wrote down that it has been the foreign policy of the United States and will be its foreign policy that it will not intervene in Internal Affairs of any country, including Iran.
MONTAGNE: Interesting that, 25-years later, that key condition that you talk about seems to be one of the issues that looms quite large in an entirely different debate; that is the question of Iran developing the capacity to process nuclear fuel.
Mr. SAZEGARA: Yeah, but, you know, one of the three slogans of older people during the revolution was independence, and when all the people shouted Independence, they meant, we don't want any foreigners to intervene in our internal affairs. And, because of full support of the Shah by the United States, everybody felt in those days that the Shah is a puppet of the United States. So all we angry against Shah, you know, were against United States.
MONTAGNE: Does the issue of not being meddled with as a nation, does that loom large in Iran?
Mr. SAZEGARA: Iranian people are very proud of their long history, and have special personality. They don't like to be, you know, under pressure or under control of any other country. This is something that the present regime of Iran now, you know, mobilized the people for this nuclear issue as well. But, Iranian people must learn to live in this world, and live in the other countries as well.
MONTAGNE: Mohsen Sazegara, he helped found the Revolutionary Guard, went on to become Deputy Prime Minister under Ayatollah Khomeini, and then grew disillusioned with the Islamic revolution. He joined the reformed movement and was imprisoned in 2003. He's come to view the seizure of the hostages as Iran's greatest mistake.
Mohsen Sazegara is currently a visiting scholar at Yale University.