On the 40th anniversary of the release of the Iran hostages, a fictional FSO heroine stirs memories of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and its aftermath.
BY JOHN LIMBERT AND MARC GROSSMAN
Believers: Love and Death in Tehran (Mazda Publishers, 2020), written by Ambassadors (ret.) Marc Grossman and John Limbert, both AFSA members, is a work of fiction set in Iran and Washington, D.C., during the 1980s and the present. The hero is the fictional FSO Nilufar Hartman, daughter of an Iranian mother and an American father. With the liberty of novelists, the authors have imagined her in scenes both historical and fictional with people real and invented. The following adapted excerpt, set in late 1980 and early 1981, ends with the release of 52 American hostages on Jan. 20, 1981, just a few minutes after Ronald Reagan took his presidential oath of office.
During the early summer of 1979, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Alan Porter had asked first-tour FSO Nilufar Hartman to go to Tehran and, with her fluent Persian, help the embassy with its flood of visa applicants. When she arrived in the early morning of Nov. 4, 1979, her Iranian mother’s family greeted her at the airport, but no one came from the embassy. She spent the night at the family home and, before she could report to work in the morning, learned that student militants had occupied the U.S. embassy compound and were holding the staff captive.
When it became clear that the crisis would drag on, Porter asked her to stay and report secretly to him on developments in Iran. As her cover, the bicultural Nilufar became the devout revolutionary “Massoumeh.” Using family connections, she found work, first at Mehrabad Airport and then in the office of Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, the second most powerful man in revolutionary Iran. Although at daily risk of exposure, Nilufar quickly became Porter’s indispensable eyes and ears. We pick up the story here, about one-third of the way through the book, when the Iranians have decided they want to end the hostage crisis.
In late August, just a month after the Shah’s death in Egypt, Beheshti asked Nilufar to arrange an urgent meeting with German Ambassador Gerhard Ritzel. “I’d like you to interpret. Doctor Sadeq Tabataba’i will join us. His wife is the sister of Khomeini’s son Ahmad. He knows the ambassador quite well. It will be just the four of us. We don’t need a notetaker.”
A day later, Ritzel and Tabataba’i came to Beheshti’s office. Although Beheshti’s German was fluent, he insisted on using Persian. With Nilufar interpreting, Beheshti told Ritzel: “The Imam has decided it is time to end the matter of the American hostages. He has instructed me to make the arrangements. I am asking you to take a message to the Americans that we are ready to settle based on four points: unfreeze Iranian funds; return the Shah’s assets to Iran; pledge noninterference in Iran’s internal affairs; and apologize for past actions against Iran.”
Ritzel thought for a minute before replying, “Sir, of course my government is ready to do anything to help resolve this problem. I will inform my counterpart in Washington to speak to the Americans. In my view, the last demand—an apology—will be difficult for them.”
“So be it. We can waive the apology at the end. It is the Imam’s opinion that this crisis has gone on too long and is distracting us from the important work of building our new Islamic Republic,” Beheshti said, turning toward Tabataba’i. “Doctor Sadeq here—at the direct request of the Imam—has full power to represent our government in any talks with American officials to work out arrangements. You know him well, and he has my authorization to meet with you as necessary.”
Nilufar said to herself, “These akhunds are amazing. Shameless hypocrites. First, they create a crisis. Then they prolong it and use it to solidify their power. Now that they’re in control, they say that it has gone on too long, and they want to end it. Only 10 months ago Khomeini forbade Iranian officials from even meeting Americans.”
Ritzel told Beheshti, “I will send your message to our ambassador in Washington. I will let you know as soon as I have an answer.”
“Please work through Dr. Sadeq,” Beheshti said. “The Americans will, of course, be suspicious. You can tell them they will have confirmation we are serious. They should listen to the Imam’s sermon, not this Friday but the one after. He will state the same conditions. They should have no doubt this approach comes directly from him.”
Nilufar’s report reached Washington only a few hours behind that of the German ambassador. It thus came as no surprise when the German ambassador in Washington asked for an urgent meeting with the Secretary. After telling him, his deputy and Porter about Ritzel’s meeting with Beheshti and the Iranian conditions, the ambassador added, “I know Ritzel. He’s been in Iran since before the revolution. He gets along well with the new government, and they obviously trust him to deliver their message. This sounds serious.”
The Secretary answered carefully, “Mr. Ambassador, we are grateful for your government’s efforts and, in particular, for those of your colleague in Tehran. We have been seeking a viable channel to Khomeini and his people for months.
“Please ask your colleague in Tehran to tell the Iranians we are seriously studying their conditions. Of course, we will want to hear the confirmation he describes. Please tell him also that even before we do, we are ready at any time to send the deputy secretary to meet with Khomeini’s representative.”
Porter asked, “Mr. Ambassador, does your colleague say anything about why the Iranians are now ready to settle?”
“He mentions several reasons. He thinks Beheshti had a lot to do with convincing Khomeini. Beheshti is now confident that he and his allies control all centers of power in Iran. They have made the president into a figurehead. They have defeated challengers on both left and right flanks. With our covert help, Beheshti has crushed the leftist Mojaahedin-e-Khalq. From this position of strength, holding the hostages no longer serves any purpose. The death of the Shah in Egypt didn’t hurt either.”
After the ambassador left, Porter and the deputy secretary stayed with the Secretary. Ever since Porter had briefed them on Nilufar’s situation, the two men remained concerned for her safety.
“Gentlemen, it’s perhaps too early to open the champagne, but I think we’re finally on a good track,” the Secretary said. “Alan, we owe a lot to you and to Ms. Hartman. You urged us to keep her there, and you were right. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it seems to me our helping Beheshti against the Mojaahedin went a long way in his persuading Khomeini to settle.”
The Secretary continued, “And what about Ms. Hartman? She’s a very brave young woman, and very few people will ever know what she did and at what risk. Should we bring her home? When she comes back, I hope she stays in the Foreign Service, although I don’t know what job can match what she’s doing now.”
Nilufar said to herself, “These akhunds are amazing. Shameless hypocrites.”
Porter told his bosses, “If she wants to come out, of course we will agree. But if she does, we’ll have to keep her out of sight for a while. If she surfaces somewhere else as an American diplomat, the Iranians will realize they’ve been duped and, at the very least, will retaliate against her family.
“I prefer she stays, at least through the hostage negotiations, which I predict will be long and difficult. Just because the Iranians have finally set out conditions we find reasonable doesn’t mean there won’t be hard bargaining ahead. They will squeeze out any advantage they can. Once our people are free, they’ve lost their leverage.”
No one in the room stated the obvious—that with American elections only two months away, the president needed a success. For the Secretary and his deputy, their jobs depended on the president’s winning a second term in November. …
On the morning of Jan. 19, Beheshti called Nilufar into his office. “Ms. Rastbin, I need your help with a very sensitive matter. You’ve certainly been following the news about the American hostages. Tonight, an Algerian medical team will visit them, and tomorrow evening, God willing, they will leave, and we will be rid of them.”
Nilufar knew an order was coming, this time not even disguised as a request. “Sir, how can I help?”
“The release has to go smoothly. The Algerian mediators will be visiting me this afternoon, and I want you to interpret at our meeting. We need to reassure them there will be no last-minute incidents and that they and the Americans will leave safely tomorrow. Between you and me, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief once those Air Algérie planes have cleared Iranian airspace.”
“We’ve done all we can to ensure things will go well at the airport. But you never know. Something can always go wrong. Those damn students are unpredictable. One or two of them could do something stupid and foul up the whole process.”
Nilufar said nothing. She knew that for more than a year Beheshti had been the controlling power behind the students. They had served his purpose, and tomorrow he would be finished with them.
“Tomorrow evening I need you to be at Mehrabad to make sure all goes smoothly. The Imam usually doesn’t give direct orders, but he’s made himself perfectly clear: All the hostages are to fly out tomorrow, and nothing can interfere with their leaving.”
“Of course. I’ll be there, sir. Do you have any hints something might go wrong?”
“I don’t, but I’m not reassured. I worry about Iraani-baazi (disorder). I worry about a hotheaded student getting into a fight with an angry hostage. I also worry about deliberate sabotage from some agent of the leftists who would love to embarrass us in front of the world press. Their dream is a riot at the airport, some hostage getting shot, and the whole deal collapsing. They have been railing against the release agreement and are accusing us of surrendering to the ‘Great Satan.’ They’re calling us traitors.”
She had never seen the masterful Beheshti so worried. He told her, “Tomorrow night you will be at the airport. Be there by seven. I will have a car with a phone for you and a pass for the special secured area. I don’t want to show myself for obvious reasons, but I will if I have to.”
With a smile, he added, “I have heard you are a master of defusing airport confrontations. Tell me what is happening, and if you see anything going wrong, call me immediately. I won’t be far away.
“One more thing. You can talk to a student named Asgharzadeh. He’s one of the few sensible ones. With him you can use my name.”
Not wanting to mention anyone by name, she asked, “What about the airport komiteh people? Will they be there?”
The Secretary continued, “And what about Ms. Hartman? She’s a very brave young woman, and very few people will ever know what she did and at what risk. Should we bring her home?”
“They should not be. This operation is far above them, and they’ll just make things more complicated. You already know the komiteh chief Sarhaddi. If he or any of his men show up, tell them to get lost. If they give you trouble, call me.”
Beheshti’s meeting with the Algerians was brief. They repeated their concern that nothing interfere with a smooth hostage release, and he assured them he had taken all possible measures. He told them the Iranian Air Force would escort the Algerian planes as far as the Turkish frontier.
The next day Nilufar stayed in the office until after sunset. About six p.m. she got into Beheshti’s car and found an armed security guard—a young man about 5’ 8” and powerfully built—in the front seat.
They traveled west along Enqelaab Avenue toward Mehrabad Airport. Because of curfews, blackouts, gasoline shortages and Iraqi air raids, the normally choked streets were almost deserted.
Her driver took her through a series of checkpoints to the VIP area. He stopped about 50 yards from the VIP lounge and about 100 yards from where three Air Algérie 727s stood ready, rear steps down and engines running. Armed Algerian security men formed cordons around the aircraft. Outside it was about 15°F, and a bitter wind blew from the mountains to the north. She sat in the car and called the number Beheshti had given her, telling him that everything seemed normal, and that there were dozens of shivering journalists on the tarmac.
She left the car and stood in the cold. As she waited, she recognized komiteh chief Sarhaddi walking toward her from the main terminal. Even in the darkness there was no mistaking his slouch and his self-importance. With no effort to be polite, he said, “Ms. Massoumeh, what a surprise. What are you doing here? I thought you had left us for more important work. Can I see your airport pass?”
Nilufar made a head motion to her bodyguard and said, “Please escort the gentleman out of this area. He has no business here.” The guard took Sarhaddi’s arm and none too gently led him away in full view of the national and international press. “You heard the honorable lady. She is here on Dr. Beheshti’s orders, and you are not. Gur-e-to gom kon, mardikeh bi-sho’ur! (Get yourself out of here, you little fool!)”
About 15 minutes later, a group walked from the lounge and boarded one of the planes. She recognized the Algerian mediators, Algerian Ambassador Abdelkarim Ghraieb, Swiss Ambassador Erik Lang and his deputy Flavio Maroni.
At about 7:20 three buses arrived and stopped between her and the planes. About 75 student hostage-takers left the buses and milled around, attempting to look fierce with their weapons and revolutionary outfits. Most of the journalists ignored the students, knowing they would soon be yesterday’s news.
Two of the students—one a few years older than the others, and the other a heavily veiled woman a few years younger than Nilufar—walked to where Nilufar was waiting. “I’m Asgharzadeh. This is Ms. Ebtekar. You must be Massoumeh. His Excellency Dr. Beheshti told us you would be here.”
Nilufar answered, “Yes. He needs to be sure there are no difficulties here tonight. Are you confident there won’t be?”
The woman answered with irritation, “We’ve taken care of everything. You really didn’t need to come. You can go home. If you speak to Dr. Beheshti, tell him that he needn’t worry.”
Nilufar ignored the insult and said simply, “He’ll be happy to hear that.”
Nilufar thought, “I know that woman’s voice and her face. She used to be at the chichi Iranzamin coed high school. Always wore the shortest skirts and was first on the dance floor. If she recognizes me from some party, I don’t think she’ll admit it.”
At 7:30 two more buses arrived and parked about 75 yards from the planes. Journalists and students moved to an area between the buses and the aircraft.
The bus doors opened, and a few student guards got off. When the Americans appeared, Nilufar gasped at their appearance: thin, haggard, bearded and dazed.
The bus doors opened, and a few student guards got off. When the Americans appeared, Nilufar gasped at their appearance: thin, haggard, bearded and dazed. They wore odds and ends of ill-fitting clothes unsuited for the wind and cold. As they stepped off the bus, they appeared confused by the noise, the lights and the crowds of students and journalists. A few had to be directed to walk toward the aircraft.
As they began to walk, the students, performing for the cameras, began shouting slogans. Nilufar thought, “What a chickenshit group! They can’t even do a departure with any style.”
One of the students started pushing a hostage, an army medic, who wasn’t moving fast enough for him. The medic turned on him and shouted in English, “Don’t push me, you piece of shit.” The student pushed harder, and the hostage grabbed his arm. A second hostage put himself inches from the student’s face and started berating him in fluent street Persian: “Take your hands off him, you son of a whore.”
Students and hostages were now shoving and trading curses. Hostages were pushing guards aside to get off the buses. Nilufar noticed a few students shouting and encouraging others to join the melee. She saw Asgharzadeh and Ebtekar, despite their earlier assurances, standing around doing nothing as the scene descended into chaos in full view of television cameras.
Nilufar immediately dialed Beheshti and reported the trouble to him. “Get me Asgharzadeh on the line,” he barked, “Now.”
She pointed out Asgharzadeh to the bodyguard, who dragged him to the car. Nilufar could hear Beheshti screaming over the phone. Asgharzadeh handed the phone to Nilufar and ran toward the commotion that was turning into a brawl.
“Keep this line open. Make sure he gets those idiots to stop,” Beheshti told her.
Nilufar put down the phone and ran after Asgharzadeh. While he worked to calm the students, she pulled aside the Persian-speaking American and told him quietly in English: “Just get out of here. Get on the plane. Some people are trying to provoke a riot and ruin everything. Don’t play into their hands. Go now.”
He nodded in understanding, backed away from the students, and walked toward the airplane. Restrained by Asgharzadeh, the other students kept their distance. As he left, Nilufar whispered to the American: “By the way, I really like your Persian. You must have had a great teacher.”
He smiled and replied, “Yes, I did. She was great.”
The remaining hostages boarded without incident, and the freezing students seemed to lose their appetite for shouting. The steps retracted and the rear door closed. The runway lights, normally extinguished at night because of Iraqi air raids, came on, and the plane began its taxi. The students, much quieter now, gathered near their buses and the journalists milled around waiting for takeoff.
The plane sat at the end of the runway for almost 10 minutes. Nilufar checked her watch. It was a few minutes past 8:30 p.m. Tehran time—just after 12 noon in Washington on inauguration day—when the plane began to roll for takeoff. As it climbed out of sight, she asked herself, “Why the delay? There was no other air traffic. What were they waiting for?”
As the car left the airport, she thanked both the driver and the bodyguard. The latter told her, “I got to know Dr. Beheshti when I was a student in Hamburg. I’ve been with him since before the revolution. He’s a great man. He was worried about tonight’s release and told me to do everything I could to help you.”
In her head she composed her message to Porter. She telephoned her final report to Beheshti, not neglecting to praise the driver and bodyguard for their good work.
“Thank you, my daughter,” Beheshti said. “I’m glad you were there to help. I knew those students would screw things up in the end. Tomorrow I’ll send them all to the war and make sure they’re in the front lines.”