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Former hostages react to Iran's nuclear deal

Wednesday - 11/27/2013, 5:06am  ET

This 1981 photo provided by retired Air Force Col. Thomas E. Schaefer shows him posing for a portrait just days after being released from captivity in Iran. Schaefer was among 66 people taken hostage when militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He calls it "foolishness" to make any deals with Iran over its nuclear program. (AP Photo/Courtesy Thomas E. Schaefer)

The Associated Press

McLEAN, Va. (AP) -- To some of the Americans subjected to mock executions and other torment during more than a year as hostages in Iran more than 30 years ago, it seems like a mistake to trust the regime in Tehran to keep its promises in a nuclear deal brokered by the U.S. and other world powers.

The prolonged hostage crisis that began in 1979 gnawed at American emotions and touched off decades of animosity between the U.S. and a nation that had once been an ally. The latest deal has been touted as a trust-building endeavor, though some who endured captivity are skeptical.

"It's kind of like Jimmy Carter all over again," said Clair Cortland Barnes, now retired and living in Leland, N.C., after a career at the CIA and elsewhere. He sees the negotiations now as no more effective than they were for the Carter administration, when he and others languished.

Retired Air Force Col. Thomas E. Schaefer, 83, called the deal "foolishness."

"My personal view is, I never found an Iranian leader I can trust," he said. "I don't think today it's any different from when I was there. None of them, I think, can be trusted. Why make an agreement with people you can't trust?"

Schaefer was a military attache in Iran who was among those held hostage. He now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife of more than 60 years, Anita, who also takes a dim view of the agreement: "We are probably not very Christian-like when it comes to all this," she said.

The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers -- the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany -- is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran's disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring of Iran's facilities. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.

The hostage crisis began in November 1979 when militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and seized its occupants. In all, 66 were taken hostage. Thirteen were released less than three weeks later in 1979; one was released in July 1980; the remaining 52 were released Jan. 20, 1981.

To be sure, the former hostages have varying views. Victor Tomseth, 72, a retired diplomat from Vienna, Va., sees the pact as a positive first step.

Tomseth, who was a political counselor at the embassy in Tehran in 1979, had written a diplomatic cable months before the hostage crisis warning about the difficulties of negotiation with the Iranians. Among other issues, Tomseth wrote that "the Persian experience has been that nothing is permanent and it is commonly perceived that hostile forces abound." As a result, he wrote that Iranians are more likely to be preoccupied with the short-term gains of an agreement and to treat negotiations as adversarial.

Still, he said in a phone interview Monday that it is possible to cut a mutually beneficial deal with them.

"The challenge is Iranian society and politics is so fragmented that it's difficult to reach a consensus," he said -- a problem that is also present in the U.S.

He said he considers the deal "in a category of an initial confidence measure."

John Limbert, 70, of Arlington, who was a political officer held hostage during the crisis and later became deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in 2009 and 2010, also supports the deal. He said he does not view it in terms of whether Iran can be trusted, but whether the regime recognizes that a deal is in its own interest.

"I would say there is a consensus among the leadership, and the consensus is, 'We like to stay in power. We like our palaces. ... We've seen the alternatives in Egypt and Tunisia," where established regimes have been toppled, Limbert said.

He said it's a mistake to be overly pessimistic about the prospects for a deal.

"If we and the Iranians could never agree, then Victor and I and all our colleagues would still be in Tehran," he said.

Limbert said the intensity of the hostage crisis created a particularly poisonous relationship. Although the hostages were largely unaware, the hostage crisis dominated the American consciousness, as images of blindfolded hostages were broadcast nightly. A failed attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980 resulted in the deaths of eight American servicemen. President Jimmy Carter's inability to resolve the crisis contributed to his defeat in the 1980 elections.

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