The 1979 Hostage Crisis: Down and Out in Tehran

Foreign Service Political Officer Michael Metrinko spent most of his 14 months as a hostage in solitary confinement. Here is his story.


What happened on November 4, 1979?

Michael Metrinko addressing a huge crowd in Scranton, Pa., the first stop en route to his hometown from Iran in January 1981.

I generally got into the embassy late because I would go out every night. I would not get home until midnight or 1 a.m. I was one of the few people who was going out, but I was also seeing a whole wide range of people who were useful to the embassy, for reporting and to get things done.

On Nov. 3, I had been contacted by two of Ayatollah Taleghani’s sons, saying they wanted to meet me the next morning at the embassy. I told them that I wouldn’t be able to get there until around 11 a.m. or so. They were insistent it had to be earlier, because they were leaving to see Yasser Arafat and they wanted to talk to me before they went. This was logical, knowing these two people, so I agreed to be there early.

I was in my office waiting for my friends to call. I noticed that there was a tremendous amount of activity around the embassy. The noise level had just picked up considerably, and when we looked out we could see lots of heads. Suddenly the heads were coming over the walls. And that was that. When I got to the main floor, people were at the doors. Then it was a matter of battening down the hatches.

I was part of the group in the ambassador’s office—a large group with some discipline, not a tremendous amount. The chargé, his deputy and the regional security officer were gone, so there was some confusion over who was in charge. There was more noise outside. The phone lines were still working. We were on the phone with Chargé Bruce Laingen, who was trying to give orders from the Foreign Minister’s office, saying Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had ordered that the protest be broken up immediately and that there were people on the way to help us, just to hang tight.

I dialed the number of my revolutionary friend who had asked me to be at the meeting, and got his security guard, whom I also knew quite well. I told him I just wanted to speak to Mehdi; he was silent for a moment, and then said, “Michael, Mehdi won’t come to the telephone.”

“You know what’s happening here at the embassy, where I’ve been waiting for Mehdi to come?” I asked.

“Yes, we know,” he said. I realized then that they had set me up.

So I just said, “Okay, I guess this is goodbye.” And he said, “Michael, I’m really sorry.” And that was that.

And That Was That

Michael Metrinko, a Peace Corps Volunteer, at the door to his house in Songhor in 1971.

Then one of our regional security officers went outside, despite recommendations that he not do so—and shortly thereafter wanted us to open the doors and let them in because they said they were going to kill him if we didn’t. He had gone out thinking he could talk to the mob, using mid-American English and with no sense at all of Iran, Iranians or anything that was happening. He was going to go out there and say, “I am the American diplomat. You are breaking the Geneva Convention...”

“Oh, shit!” was our group’s collective reaction.

Still, the general feeling was that we'd be taken, but that the situation would be managed because the government was going to come back in and break this up. And in fact, the captors, the “students” that had arranged all this, also believed it was going to be a one-day event. They told us that at the time, some of the more pleasant ones. “Don’t worry,” they said. “You’ll be in your own home by midnight tonight.”

Even in later years, as they talked about it, giving interviews about it, they still said they had planned that this was going to be a quickie, just to show the world that they could do it. Instead, so much solidarity cropped up for them—and Ayatollah Rouholla Khomeini suddenly supported them—that they stayed, and that was that.

We were taken to the ambassador’s residence first, held for a while there, kept tied up. Well, I got singled out fairly quickly. I did not tell anyone in the group, and they had no reason to know, at least initially, that I could speak Persian. I had learned my lesson in Tabriz. You do not tell captors your entire life story and what languages you speak as soon as you meet them. In fact, you hope you never have to tell them.

The author in Kurdish costume, visiting Kurdish friends in Mahabad in 1972.

By the second day, I was taken over to the cafeteria area, where they had mattresses spread out on the floor. We were placed on the mattresses, which we were sort of forced to sit and sleep on. At one point a new group walked in, went up to somebody and started speaking to him in Persian.

They were going from bed to bed. One of my embassy colleagues blurted out, “I don’t speak Farsi. Ask Metrinko. He speaks Farsi really well.” And they came over and hauled me away, and I never saw an American again for many months. The fact that you’re a Foreign Service officer doesn’t stop you from being an idiot, necessarily. They purposely tried to separate the ones who spoke Persian and also the ones who were the heads of offices in the embassy. I went to solitary on Nov. 6 and came out sometime in May 1980 for the first time, briefly.

A Lot of Interrogation

For the first month or two there was a lot of interrogation. Who do you know? What did you do? Who did you talk to? I had to give them information about figures who were public revolutionary figures. They went on repeating and repeating and repeating the same questions. They weren’t very professional.

First, they ordered me to open up the safe in my office, and I did that. If someone’s pointing a gun at you and telling you to open up an office safe, it encourages you. Besides, the break-in time for one of these safes is approximately three minutes anyway, so I just saved them the trouble. By chance I had very little in my safe. They had my list of phone numbers from the office; but, luckily, the ones in the office were standard professional contacts. And the ones in the house they had not gotten.

(I found out much later that a friend of mine, hearing over the radio the news about what was happening at the embassy, had immediately rushed to my house, gone inside and removed every piece of paper to be found in my apartment. All the paper that was in the house, including telephone numbers of friends, things like that, was removed from my house and destroyed. And that probably saved a number of people’s lives. It certainly saved them a fair amount of discomfort.)

You do not tell captors your entire life story and what languages you speak as soon as you meet them.

My impression of my interrogators was that they were very idealistic, and not too bright in the sense of having had practical experience—just sort of know-it-all students, people who were sure that their point of view was the only point of view in the world, and that everything you may have done was wrong. But by this point I was used to that attitude. I had already gone through a year and a half of listening to similar people.

They were not trying to indoctrinate me. They knew I was a lost cause. They were trying to extract information, especially about revolutionary officials who they thought might have been collaborating with us in the embassy. So I think I must have mentioned the name of every revolutionary official I could think of. “Oh, yes, he was educated in the United States. Ha, ha.” I was throwing them as many bones from their own ranks as I possibly could.

Metrinko’s return to his hometown, Olyphant, Pa., in January 1981 received national TV coverage.

Survival Techniques

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in a small, semi-closet area in the basement of the embassy. I got by by doing a tremendous amount of physical exercise. When I say that, I mean a really tremendous amount of physical exercise. I was doing many hundreds of situps a day. I’d run in place for two or three hours. And I would do this all day long every day because I had to get tired enough to fall asleep. Otherwise you don’t sleep.

Food was no problem. They always fed us, even when it was only bread and tea. I never saw anybody else all that time. I would read, exercise, read for an hour, stand up, run in place for an hour.

I never blamed the U.S. government. The U.S. government was us. I could blame myself for lack of prescience. But, you know, a revolution is an act of nature. In fact, it would be the “perfect storm.” A revolution is natural; it occurs in politics—not all the time, but as a cataclysmic event which, when you’re involved in it, you cannot deflect. You can lay back and enjoy it; you can go with it, hope to survive it; but you can’t stop it, and you can’t sit back and say, “Gee, if only I had done this” or “Why doesn’t my government do that?”

I knew my government. And I also knew all the various conflicting trends of thought in Washington about how to deal with the revolution that we were going through. I remembered very, very clearly from junior officer training, we had been told that if we were taken hostage, the government would not deal with hostage takers. I was in that situation. I did not expect the government to do anything.

May 1980 was when the incident in Tabas occurred, when Americans were killed trying to rescue us in one of the most stupidly planned, botched-up military-political escapades of the season—it was unworkable, unwinnable and if they had succeeded, we would have been dead. It could not have gotten us out. Guards came into my cell one day and said, “Pack your things, you’re being moved.” I packed my things into a tiny bag. I think I had an extra shirt, an extra pair of underpants.

They came back to my room a while later, blindfolded me, put these heavy plastic restraints on my hands, led me out and put me in the back of a van, lying on the floor. There were other people lying there next to me. We were not allowed to talk. And we started to move. I was on the floor of the van, bouncing around for a couple of hours.

We got to a different place, and they led me out, blindfolded, from the van and into a building. Various doors slammed and shut and opened and closed. You’d hear voices. Eventually, they sat me down, took off my blindfold, took off my restraints. I looked around, and I was with two other people (Americans) in the room.

We were, as it turned out, in a former SAVAK (Iranian secret police) prison in the city of Qom. I had no idea who the others were at first, and it was the first time I had talked to an American since November. So it took a while to start speaking English, which I hadn’t spoken since November. We lived together for the next month or two.

Flags set up as a memorial to the Iran hostages in Hermitage, Pa. The photo was taken after the hostages returned.

A Real Prison

I’m not sure how long I stayed in Qom. I knew it was Qom. They didn’t want to tell us where we were, but I figured it out because I could hear a train in the distance the first evening, and I knew that Qom was on a railroad track. And when I tasted the water, I knew that we weren’t in Tehran any more. Water in Iran has very distinct tastes depending on the city you’re in. The water of Qom is infamous because it tastes like salt water. It’s very brackish. Tea and coffee made there are almost undrinkable. When I had some water, I knew immediately that we had to be in Qom or somewhere near there.

We were then taken away from Qom—this was the time the hostages were spread out all across the country—and brought back to Tehran to what was called the Ghasr Prison, also known as Komiteh Prison, that had been built by Germans in the reign of Shah Reza.

It was the first time I was in a real prison, with cells and little apertures and no windows. You could hear screaming and things like that at night where people were being tortured, because there were lots of Iranians in prison with us at the same time. I had a cellmate there.

Then I was taken to Evin Prison, and went back into solitary. It was winter. Evin is in the northern part of the city of Tehran. My cell was excruciatingly cold. It was below freezing, especially at night. We had no heat. This was already after the Iran-Iraq War had started. But one day I was really, really cold. I had been told that the guards also had no heat, that they didn’t have any way to stay warm either, and there was nothing that anybody could do about this. Conditions were harsh all over the country.

Fine, I could accept that, except one day when I was going out to the bathroom—they were leading me out blindfolded—I brushed up against a stove that was on, a heater. I immediately knew it was a heater, and I just started to go on and on about what bastards they were.

They threw me back in my cell, and a little while later a of the leaders of the group came in—they were called in from the outside—and they said the guards were refusing to deal with me anymore because of my attitude, and they took me back down to Komiteh Prison at night in a car, blindfolded, and put me in a cell, just on a concrete floor with nothing else, for about two weeks. I was on bread and water for about two weeks. It was quite interesting. I may have been the first prisoner evicted from Evin because of bad behavior! Then they brought me back later to Evin.

Large crowds lined the streets to honor the former hostages as they made their way to the White House in January 1981.

Beginning of the End

It ended when the United States, I guess, finally got its act together. We had an election in the United States, which allowed the Iranians an out. Do I believe that our release was delayed on purpose, so that the election would take place? Yes, I do. Do I also believe that some Americans conspired in this? Yes, I do.

I was removed from Evin, taken to a building that (I found out later) was the former guest house of the prime minister. I was there with Dave Roeder, the Air Force attaché who had been my cellmate off and on. Dave’s a good guy. We started getting visits—Algerian diplomats, for example, and others. They weren’t supposed to talk to us very much, other than to inquire about our health. The guards were becoming “friendlier,” as in, “Gee, hasn’t this been swell?” and “You’ll be going home very shortly.”

One of the guards even gave me a copy of Time magazine, and that’s when I discovered that Ronald Reagan had been elected president. I immediately assumed it was Soviet disinformation; I did not believe it.

And then it was almost over. When we were being put on the bus, I was led back to my seat (blindfolded), and I was trying very hard to be correct because it was an important time. The bus was filling up. Two of the Americans behind me started to whisper to each other.

One of them said, “Where do you think they’re taking us? Are we really going?” Something like that.

When the other started to reply, one of the guards yelled out, “American, shut up!” Then, in Persian, he made an insulting reference to Americans.

So, in Persian, I simply replied in a loud voice, “Shut up yourself, you son of a Persian prostitute!”

They pulled me off the bus, and the bus left. They beat me up a little bit, and that was fine, except then they realized that they still had me, and I realized the bus had gone, too.

It had been stupid of me. I had just been pushed. I reacted.

Eventually they sent me out to the airport in a Mercedes-Benz, which is actually the only way to leave Iran.

Michael Metrinko was a Foreign Service political officer in Iran when the U.S. embassy was overrun on Nov. 4, 1979, by some 3,000 radical Iranian students. Before joining the Foreign Service in 1974, he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer for five years, two in Turkey and three in Iran. His first State Department assignment was back to Turkey, followed by six months on temporary duty. After only a few months in the Tehran visa unit, he was assigned as principal officer to Tabriz, where his Turkish and Persian fluency, and the large network of friends from his Peace Corps days, gave him access to a wide spectrum of Iranian society. He served in Tabriz as the revolution began to build up, returning to Tehran in February 1979, after his consulate in Tabriz had been overrun by revolutionary militia and he had been briefly jailed. In 1981 he received two Medals of Valor for his time in Iran, the first for saving American lives in Tabriz and the second for his 14 months in captivity.

Embassy Tehran had been taken over earlier in 1979, but the problem was resolved quickly and most believed Nov. 4, 1979, would be similar. Iranians were angry over President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow the shah of Iran, who had been forced out of the country earlier amidst widespread discontent over his reign, into the United States for medical treatment. What was expected to be a short demonstration turned into a 444-day hostage crisis.

Now retired, Michael Metrinko’s lifelong interest in the Islamic world led to post-9/11 assignments in Yemen, Iraq and more than five years in Afghanistan, places he continues to follow from his home in central Pennsylvania. He remains in touch with a number of old and new Iranian friends. As the third generation of his family to live in Iran, he hopes that someone from his younger generation of relatives will also have that opportunity someday.

Metrinko’s account of his experience has been adapted from the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training’s “Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History,” excerpted from Metrinko’s oral history with permission from ADST and Michael Metrinko. The oral history was recorded in interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 1999.

All photos are courtesy of Michael Metrinko.