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Diplomat Who Worked on Hostages Sees 'Argo' as Potentially Exploitive

"Argo" opened to rave reviews last weekend. Gary Sick noted in his review for Al-Monitor that, while entertaining, the movie is “Hollywood, not history." Walker Gunning gets another perspective from Henry Precht, head of the Iranian Working Group at the State Department during the hostage crisis, who explains why he isn't planning to see the movie.
Actor John Goodman (R) and Alan Arkin attend a news conference to promote the film ' Argo' during the 37th Toronto International Film Festival,  September 8, 2012.  REUTERS/Fred Thornhill  (CANADA - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)

Ben Affleck’s "Argo" opened to rave reviews and historical skepticism over the weekend. Gary Sick noted in his review on Al-Monitor that, while entertaining, the movie is, “Hollywood, not history.” The film scored as the weekend's second-biggest box-office attraction at cineplexes, making $20.1 million compared with the $22.5 million earned by Liam Neeson's Taken 2, according to preliminary estimates.

Recently Al-Monitor got another perspective on the Canadian caper from Henry Precht, head of the Iranian Working Group at the State Department during the hostage crisis. Precht shared with us what he saw from his front-row seat to history and explained why he wasn’t planning to see the movie.

Al-Monitor:  I understand you haven’t seen "Argo," is that correct?

Precht:  That’s right I have not seen it.

Al-Monitor:  Is there a reason for not seeing the film?

Precht:  I’m in Rome, Italy I’m not sure if they are showing it!

Al-Monitor:  So is it just practicality?

Precht:  No, it’s a sensitive period and I’m not sure I want to see a fictionalized version of it but I may when we go back to the United States. I don’t have any strong ideological grounds for not seeing it, but what I am afraid of is that it exploits the hostility to Iran in the United States and that I deplore.

Al-Monitor:  Do you see "Argo" as coming at a sensitive time between the two countries?

Precht:  Yes.

Al-Monitor:  In his review of "Argo" for Al-Monitor, Gary Sick said that the State Department in particular is seen as stodgy and unimaginative. What’s the truth in there?

Precht:  The State Department officers I know are no more stodgy than the CIA officers I know. In fact, I think that many State Department officers that I know have real style and imagination and courage compared to their CIA counterparts.

Al-Monitor:  Did you have some reservations about this CIA scheme?

Precht:  I didn’t have any reservations about the CIA scheme because I didn’t know about what they were planning, but I did know that the delay was going on I thought unnecessarily. Originally the delay might have been caused by hopes that the hostage crisis could have been ended soon and the Canadian people could have been released at the same time. After that hope faded pretty quickly into November, I thought there was no reason to delay getting those people out of there. With more time they were more likely to be discovered and they would then be in big trouble. When I found out the scheme after the secret came out I thought it was completely unnecessary and a rather fancy way of going through the process. I think it could have been done much more simply and much more quickly.

Al-Monitor:  And there was a real danger as well of journalists publishing a photo that would show these missing staff members, correct?

Precht:  There was that danger and there was one reporter from a Canadian paper who had the story himself and was about to publish it but was deterred I believe from doing so.

Al-Monitor:  And you played a key role in this, correct?

Precht:  I blustered him out of it, yes.

Al-Monitor:  What was the mood in the Foreign Service/State Department? Was it real demoralization to see this and not be able immediately to get these people back?

Precht:  No, I wouldn’t say so. First of all, it wasn’t widely known in the Department of State that six people were held protected in the Canadian Embassy. That was only known to a very small group of people. The hostage crisis itself if that’s what you’re asking about?

Al-Monitor:  Yes.

Precht:  I think most people who had something to do with Iran or the Middle East or who had dealt with extremist groups realized that these were the kinds of dangers that we all faced overseas. Some people that suffered even greater danger were assassinated. But it wasn’t as common in those days as it has become. Still, I think that I was impressed with the way that foreign service officers that had any kind of connection at all with Iran or maybe not, volunteered to serve on the Iran working group, answering the telephones and doing other chores around the office. And we had a large staff and it was in good part built by volunteers who did that. Wives of foreign service officers pitched in to help with the dependents of the hostages in ways that they could. It was a real group effort I think.

Al-Monitor:  And you were head of that working group, correct?

Precht:  That’s correct.

Al-Monitor:  Who was the Iranian foreign minister at the time and what was your contact with him like before and after the rescue?

Precht:  Before the hostages were taken, the foreign minister was Ebrahim Yazdi. He resigned a day or two after the embassy was seized. And his replacement was Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who remained on the job until after the hostage crisis was over. He had never been willing to talk to us and we found him unwilling to do so even after, when the hostage crisis was going on. He would talk to Professor Richard Cottam of the University of Pittsburgh who had been his teacher in the United States and was sympathetic to the Iranian dissidents. He did talk later on when we got into some secret negotiations, to Hamilton Jordan but he wouldn’t talk to me, who a number of times accompanied Ham Jordan to meeting places in Europe. He had a thing about the State Department because the State department had had a thing about Iranian opponents of the Shah and refused to talk to them therefore I suppose he felt he was giving us the same treatment, refusing to talk to us. By the way, he has since been executed for having talked to us.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned that this was kind of tit-for-tat for him. Was this revolution the ghost of the Mosaddegh coup coming back? Do you feel like there is a causal relationship between the earlier CIA backed re-installment of the Shah there and what happened later?

Precht:  No. For many Iranians, the Mosaddegh coup was a terrible thing and they blamed us for it. Many liberal Iranians blamed us for it. But the clergy didn’t really pay that much attention to the Mosaddegh period. They just didn’t look that far back in history. All they looked was to the Nixon, Kissinger relationship with the shah, arm sales and you know our very close support for him and our close support for Israel as well. So I don’t think the Mosaddegh episode has that much to do with the Iranian revolution.

Al-Monitor:  Were there thoughts in the State Department of letting the shah back into Iran after the revolution?

Precht:  No, we thought that was a complete nonstarter, an absurd idea on the part of these naïve students. And there was no thought at all of letting the shah back. US policy was, initially before the revolution succeeded, was to invite him to come to the United States, California, Walt Annenberg’s estate. And if that was the middle of January when he left Tehran, he then went to Egypt, bounded around there. He went to Morocco, the Moroccan king got tired of him. He decided to come to the United States By that time, the revolution had succeeded and I said we have a choice: Either we’re going to ... try to rebuild a relationship with Iran or we’re going to do what we should do as a human being to assist this man who has been our friend for a long time. And I think President Carter agreed with my assessment that we should have to turn our back on the Shah in order to have the hopes for a better relationship with Iran. But that wasn’t a universal opinion. I think Dr. Brzezinksi felt quite differently, as did a bunch of people outside the government. David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, the American establishment in general.

Al-Monitor:  Now one of the lines in the movies is that the "Argo" plot is the “best bad idea we’ve got.” Was there a good idea?

Precht:  We tried every idea that we came up with. We tried as many connections as we could devise, indirect and otherwise, to Iran and its clerical leadership. We sent messages around the world asking our embassies to contact religious leaders, labor leaders, youth leaders, governments, to ask them to try and persuade the Iranians to release our hostages. None of those things worked. We tried the World Court, we tried the Security Council, we tried everything conceivable. We tried secret negotiations, but we were dealing with a man, Khomeini, who just wasn’t willing to make any kind of concessions. He had achieved victory in the revolution by being consistently, and unequivocally, opposed to the shah and he wasn’t going to do any favors for the United States by disciplining his followers. Although his initial reaction to the seizure of the embassy was negative but his mind was quickly changed by the clerics around him who were of a more extreme disposition.

Al-Monitor:  In the movie, the State Department is shown trying to kill this scheme at the last minute. Is this pure fantasy?

Precht:  If it’s true ,I don’t know who in the State department did it. Peter Tarnoff was the liaison with the CIA, I myself didn’t know what they were planning so I couldn’t have opposed it.

Al-Monitor:  After the fact was there concern that the hostage takers would take revenge for the extraction of the other hostages.

Precht:  I don’t think that came up. If we could get them out we were going to get them out, so I don’t think that was a consideration. Maybe it should have been. But, I think, you know, the hostage takers didn’t have these people so they wouldn’t have been shown to be inept or failing in their duties whatever they may be. You know if you shift to the rescue mission, we in the State Department, if you want evidence of stodginess, we were opposed to the use of force, we were afraid it would mean the death of the hostages as well as other Americans in Tehran, so we opposed it. And our opposition was known, therefore we were never consulted on planning for the rescue mission. And it’s just a kind of a parallel to the Canadian thing I guess.

Al-Monitor:  You are a writer as well a diplomat ... do you think there is a way that this story could be told without deepening the schism you mentioned between Iranians and Americans?

Precht:  I don’t think there’s a story there. [Laughs.] ... as a documentary, it would be quite a different film. I mean they’ve made a film which Gary Sick liked very much. I just don’t have any idea for how to make a film that would not make the United States look like it was outsmarting the vicious Iranians and I think that’s not something that’s useful in this particular time in our relationship.

Al-Monitor:  In general do you see a way to repair the relationship between the Iranian people and the American people, even absent government initiatives?

Precht:  I think Iranian attitudes toward the American people are probably more positive than any other Muslim country in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Turkey. I think we have a great resource there in their desire to attend our educational institutions to practice elements of our lifestyle, and to hope to have a kind of a democratic forum that we have in this country transferred to their country. We have a very positive resource in those people but I think we have damaged it severely with threats and the sanctions, which hurt them more than their leaders. The first thing we should do once we have a new administration is to change our attitudes toward Iran. The course that we are on now can only lead to war, which impair American relationships for a very long time in the future.

Al-Monitor:  So what’s needed is not fancy plots but good old-fashioned diplomacy?

Precht:  That’s right. Stodgy diplomacy.

Walker Gunning, an Al-Monitor staff member, recently presented a portion of his masters thesis at the 16th Berlin Roundtables. He has also worked on several independent and documentary films, including the Oscar-nominated short documentary “Killing in the Name.”

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