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Kathryn Koob: 1979 Iran Hostage Interview (Part 1)

posted on October 30, 2009 at 2:26 PM

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On November 4, 1979 an Iranian militant group besieged the American Embassy in Tehran. Sixty-six Americans were initially taken hostage from two places in the city. Some were released. The remaining were held captive for 444 days.

An Iowan on assignment at the Iran America Center, ended up in the middle of it all and became as she puts it, a "Guest of the Revolution." Paul Yeager had a chance to sit down and talk with Kathryn Koob 30 years after the Iranian Revolution began.

Paul Yeager: Kathryn Koob, let's go back 30 years. Thirty years to the last week of October 1979. What was going on? Where were you and what were you doing then?

Kathryn Koob: I was the director of the Iran America Society in Tehran of Iran and my staff at that institution and I were just trying to figure out how we could work in the parameters of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. What could be put in our exhibition halls? Could we have a film and if we had a film could we use a Woody Allen film? We had an Iran Folk Tale production in our theater which was very popular and lots of school classes were coming to see. Our library was being used by students. Our English language program had started up and we were wondering if we should begin our Farsi language program which we offered for ex-patriots. So, it was a bit of exploration. I was meeting with the Directors of the Japanese, the German, the French, and Italian Cultural Centers and we were trying to meet with people from the government to say okay, what can we do? What can't we do and we were trying to take baby steps to figure out what our role was in this new Islamic Republic. It was an exciting time.

Yeager: You hadn't been that around that long though at that time?

Koob: No, I arrived on July 19th.

Yeager: There was a couple of days before you could sense that things had definitely changed?

Koob: Well, there were always demonstrations. There were -- everything had been shut down. The clubs had been shut down. The theaters had been shut down. The only things that was sort of available were soccer games on the weekend and the only other thing you could do was go down and yell at the Americans in front of the embassy.

Yeager: November 4, 1979 -- take me through that day.

Koob: Well, we were having a staff meeting that morning and in the middle of the staff meeting my secretary interrupted and she normally didn't do that, and she said there's a phone call and I think you should take it. It was one of my Iranian Board Members who said are you aware that there's a demonstration going down -- on down at the embassy. It seems to be a pretty serious one. I called the embassy and I got a response embassy occupied. So, we knew that someone was inside the building because someone was at the switchboard. I had a direct line and so I dialed the front office or the Sharsha's office and that's when I found out that in deed the building was full of Iranians, there had been a major demonstration, someone inside the embassy had let them in, and at this point they were holding one of the guards or one of our security officers captive.

Koob: This type of thing should not be happening. The Foreign Ministry should be telling the people okay, you've made your statement, you've made your process, and indeed in February there had been a similar incident and the Foreign ministry had said okay go home. And that's what should have happened according to all of the international code of treatment of diplomatic personnel.

Koob: And so, I went back to the Ahnjoman thinking okay we'll just keep on reporting and doing what we are and another group came and this time we were not able to get away.

Yeager: Forcefully escorted I think -- was that the term you've used?

Koob: Yeah, it could be and certainly they made no bones about the fact that we were into the car and then we were taken, but the the Iran America Center was about oh, two and a half, three miles I think from the embassy, and so they took us from the center to the embassy compound.

Yeager: What was the worst day of 444? Was it that first or did they all?

Koob: The worst day was January 1, 1981. Why that day -- I guess it was the realization that we'd lost the whole calendar year of 1980. 1980 basically hadn't happened and on that day I woke up and I was just really really depressed. Ann was very quiet. I finally said to her, are you depressed as I am? If that's the case, we're in trouble.

Yeager: Does the book captivate and capture most of what happened or are there still things that are in your mind that you have taken away?

Koob: I'm not an historian. I'm not a political pundit. I wrote the book because so many people said how did you survive and as I wrote the book I realized that I survived the same way that the rest of the world survives when they're held hostage whether it's through unemployment, terminal illness, -- when I was feeling sorry for myself I had -- a pity pa-- pity party prayer list and on that the top one on the list is to pray for the parents who were at the bedside of the terminally ill child. I cannot imagine any thing worse than that and right behind that was having to send your child to bed hungry at night because you couldn't provide food, and there are lots of people, and so I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was in relationship, and I realized that I'm a political prisoner, an international political prisoner, but people are held hostage in so many ways.

Yeager: Talk about your final couple of days. You loved written correspondence and wanted so desperately to have mail. People were writing you letters and you had no idea how much were writing. You were being told that the government had stopped sending you mail for whatever reasons.

Koob: Right.

Yeager: Talk about some of that frustration and some of the things that trickled in to help give you hope that people knew what was going on to you.

Koob: Well, one of the things that trickled in that made us understand what was going on, Ann got a letter with some photos in it from one of her cousins and there were big yellow ribbons tied around her tree. We knew our families wouldn't forget us. We knew our churches and our communities and our Foreign Service colleagues wouldn't forget us but we had no idea of course of the development of Ted Koppel Show that news counts were doing a count down and that this was going on in such an extraordinary way. Yes, I'm very much oriented toward my family.

Koob: I was the oldest of six girls and we grew up -- my sisters are my best friends. We were given a few letters and part of the problem was everything had to be read before it could be given to us and they simply couldn't cope with it but yes they wanted us to believe that the government had forgotten us and and that they had cut off all communication

Yeager: Talk about some of the times you were taken into a room, blindfolded, taken to a room, put in front of a camera and you knew it ended up it was going to be used for propaganda. You know they asked you what your conditions were like and in one instance you say -- we were almost laughing but we were smiling. Talk about how -- did you feel like you were being used?

Koob: We were brought into this -- pastor who was visiting us at Easter time and when we were talking with each other and we were talking about what we were doing and we were sort of supporting each other and when we got back to the room we realized that we probably had been used because we had been primed to talk about the good things etc. And so Ann said and I agreed with her never again, and when we were asked on the -- at another time how we were being treated, Ann said well, we live in fear every day and they were very upset with that and Ann looked at which ever one of the men was our questioner at that point and said well we'd be stupid not to be afraid. Wouldn't we? I mean this is – a volatile situation, we don't know what's going on, you can do with us whatever you want. We would be very silly not to have fear everyday.

Koob: Well, they sort of admitted that maybe that was right, but that was not what they wanted to see on camera. They wanted the world to know how nicely we were being treated and at least Ann and I for the most part, we talked about the word that we would use in terms of our relationship with the sisters etc. We were their prisoners. They were our guards and the word that we used was correct.

Yeager: Tell me about those final couple of day, couple of weeks before your release.

Koob: Well, you maybe going home soon. They had never before said you're going home. So, that was a little bit different and then there were Algerian doctors, a medical team, who came to check us all out because they wanted to be very clear that we were in good health etc. And and then on the day that we came home they came into the room and said you're going home, get your things together. We said we're ready let's go. Ann and I always had what we called our get-a-way bags that we had ready. It was a change of clothes and a few things that we wanted to bring with us and our bibles and they said well, we'll be back in 20 minutes. Well, it wasn't 20 minutes. It was a little bit longer than that, but we were actually taken out of the building.

Koob: And then we were driven for some time and then they finally said you can take off your blindfolds and we were on the tarmac and there were two Algerian aircrafts sitting there. So, it looked pretty good.

Yeager: Who were some of our captors? Do you ever know who any of them were?

Koob: One of them has tried regularly to get a visa to come to the United States to the UN meeting. President Ahmadenjad I am convinced was on the compound. He may have not have been there the first day, but it's very interesting that four or five of us individually when he was running and they started showing pictures of him in the run-off, looked and said he was one of them. I'm convinced he was on the compound.

Koob: And of course there were the guards who wanted you, you know, who wanted to trip you up and who were convinced you were a spy.

Yeager: Have you been back?

Koob: No.

Yeager: Do you ever want to go back?

Koob: I don't think my family would let me. I'd have to sneak out of town. Given the political situation and climate there I don't think it would be appropriate for me to go back at this time. Would I meet some of them on neutral ground, yes. As a matter of fact I believe one of my colleagues Barry Rosen has meet a -- a couple of the people for a program for the BBC a year or so ago in London.

Koob: And that's neutral territory and that's fine. But my sisters have been quite adamant about the fact that I'm not going back.

Yeager: So more them keeping you away but you still have a little bit of a curiosity?

Koob: Oh, I have a great deal of curiosity about what goes on. I just recently had a chance to speak with the BBC Farsi broadcast person Bachmed and ask him a few questions of about, you know, how wide spread was the opposition to Ahmadinejad?

Every Iranian was not responsible for what a few people did just as everybody in the US is not responsible for the Klu Klux Klan does.

I read as extensively as I can and both journals and like Washington Report, but also fiction that comes out of Iran and talk with people who have been there. So, I do try and keep --- a little bit knowledgeable about what's going on.

Yeager: How different is the environment now to what it was when you were there?

Koob: I'm not sure partly because we were very restricted in our movements when we were there. It was interesting to see the protest that happened after the most recent election. They were very reminiscent of the protest that happened before the Ayatollah came back.

Koob: The thing that is different now, I think, is that many, many more Iranians, no matter how they try and jam it, have access to information because you can't jam all the satellites all of the time, and we saw things coming out of Iran that were coming out by a phone and so there -- there is that freedom and it's not only in Iran where that is happening but it's happening in other places around the world too.

Yeager: When you were released, you were taken back eventually to Washington and New York, and had huge welcome homes back in Iowa. When you look at -- of course that's not going to erase any of the memories of captivity, I mean, but it certainly overwhelm you or how would you describe your welcome home?

Koob: I use the sound bite before we knew we had sound bites it was like a bath of love because people were so welcoming. People were so welcoming and -- and that was wonderful. To be received so warmly by so many people you didn't know as well as your own family and friends, there were people who were detractors.

Koob: So, if any thing came out of that it is, I think, America's understanding of the difference between policy and foot soldier and I'm -- I'm really, really grateful for that and, you know, I'm so glad every time one of them comes home.

Koob: I always say I've been on the other side of that smile.

"I've come home it seems."

After the extended homecoming stopped, Koob weighed different offers. But she knew a return to the life overseas she knew was in order.

Koob: So, I did a little exploring but I found nothing that was as interesting as the work as I was already doing, and so I chose to stay working with people who want to know more and more accurate information about the United States and that I was very, very pleased to do and of course once I'd been through all of this I have really -- I've had some really great assignments. I got to go to Austria. I got to go to Munich. I got to go to Australia and those were all places that I -- loved and I think where we were able to make a difference.

Koob: And when we shut off communication with Iran as we have for the last 30 years -- we're not learning anything on either side or at the best minimal, and so we need to be a dialogue. We need to be in conversation and being a part of those conversations in the years after being a hostage was something I --- I just really couldn't give up.

Yeager: How is the U.S. viewed now and has that change in your -- during your career over -- abroad?

Koob: I'm searching for the way to explain this. As a career government worker we always were responsible for speaking the official foreign policy line that did change from president to president and so our job didn't change but sometimes the context in which we did changed. I was recently in Namibia and I was talking with high ranking church officials who had good connections with high ranking government officials, and I could hardly believe what I was hearing because Namibia has been independent for 20 years now and celebrate this independence and it's autonomy and these were people who work very hard for that independence, but they said to me you have to understand that when you elected President Obama you validated every African, Black, in the world. This was not something I expected or anticipated because yes, we understood how important the election was in terms of our own growth as a country in terms of racism, but it really is true that sometimes when America sneezes the rest of the world blows it's nose, and and we always had to be conscious of that, but we always were responsible for being accurate in terms of presenting the U.S., the official U.S. Foreign Policy. And so our job would change but just as our foreign policy shifted gradually and slowly so did the way that we presented it.

Koob: So, you always walk that -- that tightrope as a Foreign Service officer.

Yeager: You were not tortured at all?

Koob: Physically.

Yeager: Mentally of course.

Koob: You know what's going on? Where are my colleagues? Who is being held? What's happening to them? Not knowing is sometimes some of the worst torture as anybody who sat at the bedside and waited for results to come back from blood that's been given or whatever. So, that's very hard.

Yeager: But since 9/11 in 2001, there's been an on-going discussion about terrorism and torture whereever the U.S. is at the hands of it or the receiver of it. Have you paid any attention to those discussions? How does that relate to any of the work or at least the overall structure of your work.

Koob: It's very scary when our country uses extreme methods of information extraction because I read just recently; somebody said it's not torture because the United States does it. And I'm sorry; I think it's still torture, and I think that we have to beg the world's apologies for some of the things that we've done in our recent history. I think that extreme method of extraction of information is abhorrent.

Yeager: As you look back -- it doesn't seem like it's been 30 years. Is that the only thing that shapes Kathryn Koob's life and career?

Koob: That's less than 1/16th. I think I figured out the fraction at one point when I was in my 60s, and now I'm at my 70, you know, 14 months out of 70 years? No. What formed my life was the treating I was given at home by my parents and my church and growing up in very pragmatic Iowa. I am so proud of our state so often when it looks at things and says, okay, this is what we have to do. It's formed by all of the people I've met around the world, the friends I've had an opportunity to get to know, post Iran as well as before, and I think of the friends that I have in Australia and in Austria and in Africa and the countries I was there, the interests that I have in what goes on in those countries. What Iran shaped was my spiritual development. The advancement of my spiritual development and my absolutely strong belief in reconciliation in loving your enemies because those are the things that enable to live with yourself. If you let anger, bitterness, and hatred possess your life -- they've won everyday.

Koob: Forgiving people, loving your enemies, and seeking reconciliation is healing for you even if it never actually happens in terms of a one-on-one situation.

Yeager: Thank you so very much for giving us time and representing Jubilee, Jesup, and all of Iowa and the United States so well. Thank you so very much for your time.

Koob: Thank you, Paul.

Tags: history hostages interviews Iowa Iran