Robert C. Ode
Annotation: In 1979, Iranian students invaded the American embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats and others hostage for 444 days. To secure their freedom, President Jimmy Carter agreed in his last days in office to release $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
Since the end of World War II, Iran had been a valuable friend of the United States in the troubled Middle East. In 1953 the CIA had worked to ensure the power of the young shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. During the next 25 years, the shah often repaid the debt. He allowed the United States to establish electronic listening posts in northern Iran along the border of the Soviet Union, and during the 1973?1974 Arab oil embargo the shah continued to sell oil to the United States. The shah also bought arms from the United States, which helped ease the American balance?of?payments problem. Few world leaders were more loyal to the United States.
Like his predecessors, Carter was willing to overlook the shah's violations of human rights. To demonstrate American support, Carter visited Iran in late December 1977. He applauded Iran as "an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world" and praised the shah as a great leader who had won "the respect and the admiration and love" of his people.
The shah was indeed popular among wealthy Iranians, but in the slums of Teheran and in rural, poverty?stricken villages, there was little respect, admiration, or love for his regime. Led by a fundamentalist Islamic clergy and emboldened by want, the masses of Iranians turned against the shah and his westernization policies. In the early fall of 1978 the revolutionary surge in Iran gained force. The shah, who had once seemed so powerful and secure, was paralyzed by indecision, alternating between ruthless suppression and attempts to liberalize his regime. In Washington, Carter also vacillated, uncertain whether to stand firmly behind the shah or to cut his losses and prepare to deal with a new government in Iran.
In January 1979, the shah fled to Egypt. Exiled religious leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini returned to Iran, preaching the doctrine that the United States was the "Great Satan" behind the shah. Relations between the United States and the new Iranian government were terrible, but Iranian officials warned that they would become infinitely worse if the shah were granted asylum. Nevertheless, Carter permitted the shah to enter the United States for treatment of lymphoma. The reaction in Iran was severe.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian supporters of Khomeini invaded the American embassy in Teheran and captured 66 Americans, 13 of whom were freed several weeks later. The rest were held hostage for 444 days and were the objects of intense political interest and media coverage.
Carter was helpless. Because Iran was not a stable country in any recognizable sense, its government was not susceptible to pressure. Iran's demands--the return of the shah to Iran and admission of U.S. guilt in supporting the shah--were unacceptable. Carter devoted far too much attention to the almost insoluble problem. The hostages stayed in the public spotlight in part because Carter kept them there.
Excerpts from the diary Robert C. Ode key after being taken captive follow.
Document: Nov. 4, 1979: Since I wasn't sure whether we were expected to work at the Consular Section, in view of what the Chargé had told me last evening, I went to the office just the same at 7:30 as I had quite a bit of work to do anyway. When I got there, however, I found that everyone was coming to work as usual but we were not open to the general public. About 9:00 I was in my office when a young American woman, apparently the wife of an Iranian, was shown into my office as she wanted to obtain her mother-in-law's Iranian passport that had been left at the Consular Section a day or so before for a non-immigrant visa. Just as I was talking to her in an attempt to find out to whom the passport had been issued, when it was left with us, etc., we were told by the Consul General to drop everything and get up to the second floor of the Consular Section. I really didn't know what was happening but was told that a mob had managed to get into the Embassy Compound and, for our own protection, everyone had to go upstairs immediately.
I noticed that the Consul General was removing the visa plates and locking the visa stamping machines. I went upstairs with the American woman and could see a number of young men in the area between the rear of the Consular Section and the Embassy CO-OP store. We were told to sit on the floor in the outer hallway offices. A Marine Security Guard was present and was in contact with the main Embassy building (Chancery) by walkie-talkie. After an hour or so we could hear that the mob, which turned out to be student revolutionaries, were also on the walkie-talkie. The Marine Guard then advised that we were going to evacuate the Consular Section.
There were some visitors on the second floor in the Immigrant Visa Unit and the American Services Unit. I was asked to assist an elderly gentleman, either an American of Iranian origin or an Iranian citizen, I don't know, since he was almost blind and was completely terrified, and to be the first one out of the building. When we got outside he was met by a relative who took him away in his car. The students outside the Consular Section appeared to be somewhat confused at that point and the Consul General and about four other American members of the Consular Section, of which I was one, started up the street with the intention of going to his residence. When we were about 1 ½ blocks from the Consular Section we were surrounded by a group of the students, who were armed, and told to return to the Compound. When we protested a shot was fired into the air above our heads.
It was raining moderately at the time. We were taken back to the Compound, being pushed and hurried along the way and forced to put our hands above our heads and then marched to the Embassy residence. After arriving at the residence I had my hands tied behind my back so tightly with nylon cord that circulation was cut off. I was taken upstairs and put alone in a rear bedroom and after a short time was blindfolded. After protesting strongly that the cord was too tight the cord was removed and the blindfold taken off when they tried to feed me some dates and I refused to eat anything I couldn't see. I strongly protested the violation of my diplomatic immunity, but these protests were ignored. I then was required to sit in a chair facing the bedroom wall. Then another older student came in and when I again protested the violation of my diplomatic immunity he confiscated my U.S. Mission Tehran I.D. card. My hands were again tied and I was taken to the Embassy living room on the ground floor where a number of other hostages were gathered. Some students attempted to talk with us, stating how they didn't hate Americans--only our U.S. Government, President Carter, etc. We were given sandwiches and that night I slept on the living room floor. We were not permitted to talk to our fellow hostages and from then on our hands were tied day and night and only removed while we were eating or had to go to the bathroom.
Nov. 5, 1979: After remaining in the living room the next morning I was taken into the Embassy dining room and forced to sit on a dining room chair around the table with about twelve or so other hostages. Our hands were tied to each side of the chair. We could only rest by leaning on to the dining table and resting our head on a small cushion. The drapes were drawn and we were not permitted to talk with the other hostages. At one point my captors also tried to make me face the wall but I objected since I had no way to rest my head and after considerable objections I was permitted to continue facing the table. Our captors always conversed in stage whispers. We were untied and taken to the toilet as necessary as well as into a small dining room adjacent for meals, then returned to our chairs and again tied to the chair. I slept that night on the floor under the dining table with a piece of drapery for a cover.
December 11, 1979: About 1:30 or 2:00 a.m.-- I was awakened, blindfolded and taken to another room in the Residence; a bedroom at the southwest corner. I was given a mattress to lie on. Shortly thereafter two other hostages, Bruce German, B&F Officer, and Robert Blucher, Commercial Attaché, were brought into the room to replace Barry Rosen and another hostage who were taken elsewhere. Although the drapes were drawn at all times and we had the usual guard in the room 24 hours a day and a light burning all night, as usual, it was, in general, a more comfortable room, as we had a bathroom leading off our room that, at first, was fairly clean, and was not used by too many others. The toilet was fairly clean and worked properly and we had warm water for showers, shaving and washing our dishes. The usual restrictions remained--no talking, hands tied at all times. We were given a Gillette "Trac II" safety razor and a can of shaving soap for our own use so I shaved off my accumulated beard of 38 days, leaving only a "goatee". We could shower and wash our underwear and socks as often as we wished. From time to time we were blindfolded, a blanket placed over our head and were taken to a walled-in enclosure off the Residence kitchen for about 15 minutes of exercise.
December 12 and 14 (approximately): On December 14 I was taken out doors for the first time for exercise-my 41st day of captivity! Although I had been exercising in my rooms by pacing back and forth as much as possible, being out in the fresh air for the first time made me feel almost as though I had just gotten up from a hospital bed for the first time after a long period in the hospital! I actually felt rather weak and wobbly! One of the guards asked me why I didn't jump around and exercise more vigorously, rather than just walk around in the yard, but I actually couldn't --just felt too weak! Either on December 12 or 14 I was given two letters that had arrived from Rita, as well as one from Grandma Bode! [Not Ode's real grandmother, as he was in his sixties] I was delighted to receive them--the first that I had heard from anyone and noted that the address was the "Iran Working Group, Wash. D.C." However, I had to return the letters to my captors after having read them, and was not allowed to retain them in my possession, even though I protested that they were personal letters from my wife and a friend. I immediately answered them and was told that I could now write as often as I wished. I had to request paper, envelopes and a ball-point pen from the guard on duty each time and had to return the pen and any unused paper as I wasn't permitted to retain them. At that moment, I was the only one in my room to receive mail. I felt badly about this as I knew that, Bruce German in particular, was very worried about his wife and children.
March 8, 1980: Received a visit from an Iranian doctor who described himself as being with the Iranian "Red Lion Society" (similar to our Red Cross). He said he was a general practitioner and a surgeon. He asked me whether a Dr. Miller was my doctor. I told him I had no regular doctor in the U.S. but that I believed Dr. Miller was on the Department's Medical Division staff and I related to him in detail my heart condition, how it had caused partial loss of vision in my left eye; treatment I underwent at the U.S. Navy Hospital in Naples: 97th General U.S. Army Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, and the U.S. Army Hospital at Landstuhl, Germany. He listened to my heart and made some comments to the group of students which I couldn't understand after he had taken my name and age. He also took my blood pressure which was 150 over 100-higher than its usual 120/80. I told him about my letter to Dr. Dustin and asked about the possibility of being released because of my age and physical condition. His only comment was "If God wills!" The doctor was accompanied by still [cameramen] and TV cameramen and several of the students. The cameramen took pictures over my objections. They also examined Blucher.
March 11, 1980 (approximately): Our room was visited by an English-speaking Iranian girl (very anti-American although she stated that she had lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years), together with a TV camera crew. She said they wanted pictures of all the hostages as a "souvenir" for the students' files. I doubted this and objected to having the photos taken. Blucher was out of the room at the time so she said they would return as they wanted pictures of both of us. I warned her that it would probably be useless as I was sure Blucher was not willing. As I had warned her, Blucher refused to have his picture taken when he returned, to the extent of lying face down on his bed. She said it was obligatory, but he would not cooperate. I let them proceed with me. I was required to state my name, position at the Embassy and when I had arrived in Iran. This was spoken into a microphone for sound on tape. She then asked me for the same information concerning Blucher which I refused to give, stating that it was up to him to give her this information, not me. The TV cameraman photographed the back of his head while he was face down on his bed!
About this time, demonstrators were in the street in front of the Embassy (opposite our room) with amplifiers at full volume with one man shouting at the top of his voice leading a crowd in organized chants such as something like "Allah-ho" to which the crowd would reply "Ak-bar" (Is Greater) and "Khomeini" with the crowd replying "Rak-bar" (Is Great). These and other chants had been continuing around the clock for about four days, only quieting down a bit between perhaps 3:00 and 5:00 a.m.! The leader had become so hoarse from his constant yelling that his voice was breaking!
March 13 and 14, 1980: Just at lunch time on March 13 we were told we were to be taken out of doors in the sunshine which was beautiful for a walk and could eat our lunch outdoors. However, this was not convenient so we didn't go that day. Then about 11:00 a.m. on March 14, I was blindfolded (as usual), taken outdoors and placed in a car and driven to the enclosure of the Embassy residence where we sometimes were taken for exercise. There was an "exercise bike" in the yard. I was the only hostage there. I sat on the bike for about 10 minutes and a photographer took some color and black and white photos (see Ode Home Page for photograph). Sunshine was warm and lovely but I was there only about 10 minutes, obviously this was only for photographic (propaganda) purposes and not for my benefit!
August 4, 1980: Today we begin the 10th month of our captivity-nine months from November 4, 1979 when we were kidnapped; and still there is absolutely nothing doing that makes me feel that we will get out of here soon. Just can't understand what our Gov't is doing to obtain our release. It is very, very, discouraging! Reminded Mohammed again this morning when he brought our breakfast about checking at the post office for mail. His attitude this morning was that I received two letters last night (one from my wife and a note from friend Julia) and that is all that is necessary. I keep urging him to check at the post office and not wait for mail to be delivered here, which is what I think happened last night, as I am confident that there must be more mail there--the last time we got mail was five bags of it on July 12 which wasn't sorted out and censored and given to us until five days later, July 17. It is a constant up-hill battle to get mail--as the students will never realize how much it means to us.
This afternoon I was let into the toilet when Ann Swift, one of the two women hostages here, was cleaning the toilet. It is the first time I have been aware that the women hostages have been detailed to cleaning the toilets along with preparing our evening meals for us. When we were downstairs and our toilet conditions were so miserable, I had volunteered to be on a cleaning detail but it was refused. I supposed the Iranian students feel that cleaning toilets is "women's work" as they certainly would never lift a finger to keep anything clean, let alone toilets!
In late afternoon one of the students brought a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting around and told me to take as much as I wanted of it. I took two pieces each for me and Jerry. The student reminded me that we had been here nine months so I presume that the cake was baked as some sort of a celebration of our confinement! I asked him what they had in mind for the next nine months celebration! Dinner tonight was very good-"pigs in blankets" (hot dogs wrapped with cheese and mustard and folded into pie dough), also fresh baking powder biscuits and cheese and more cake, this time a white cake with lemon frosting! The girls are really saving our lives! When I was let into the toilet today by accident, because Ann Swift was there, we didn't get a chance to say anything to each other before the guard discovered his mistake and ushered me out again.
Tonight must have been some special observance of Ramadan, which began on July 13 and is to continue for 30 days, as there was a big demonstration in front of the embassy with the usual shouting of "Allah-ho-Akbar", etc. Sounded like quite a mob. Fortunately my room is at the back of the building and the air conditioner drowns out noises, so I wasn't bothered by the shouting as I used to be when my room was at the front of the building as I could only hear it at such times as I used the toilet.
August 5, 1980: Mohammed told me this morning that some mail had arrived yesterday: however, we weren't given it all day. Hopefully we will receive it tomorrow. Did get out in the sun this afternoon for almost an hour so managed to "toast" myself on both sides. They now let me strip down to my underwear briefs while I am sunning. Then we had a shower in the former Medical Unit which is now a complete mess! The shower is one of the better ones, which isn't saying much the manner in which the students make a mess of everything. I guess university students are complete slobs no matter what nationality they are.
The student who took me out for sun today asked me if I was learning any Iranian (Persian). I told him since I never intended to return to Iran once I am set free, I have no use for or intention of learning any Farsi. I told him that I once had some Iranian friends in Switzerland but no longer intended to associate with any Iranians. He asked me if they were better than the students here. I told him that they seemed like nice people at the time and at least when I was invited to their homes they let me go home when I wished, which was not the case here. He said that "Life is a school" and that I "shouldn't worry" (which is their usual response to everything: "Don't worry about it, it isn't important!") I told him that if life is a school, this is a bit of learning I could do without and that the only thing I had learned was to hate Iran and all Iranians and that I would hate this country and everyone connected with it for the rest of my life!
August 6, 1980: Akbar still isn't back from wherever he is. I believe he is on one of the summer farm work projects that the students participate in to show their affinity for the "downtrodden" which, of course, is a lot of BS. Anyway, when he isn't here, nothing seems to run really right. Mohammed still hasn't given us any of the mail that was supposed to have arrived two days ago and he isn't here either or at least isn't paying any attention to us. I'll be glad when Ramadan is over, which it should be on either August 10 or 11 (was told Ramadan lasts for 29 days and it began on July 13, so hopefully August 10 is the last day). Perhaps then things will begin to show some semblance of order again. I think most of the students stay up all night celebrating Ramadan and doing their eating, and then sleep all day. They are not supposed to eat or drink anything from 4:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.
August 7, 1980: Neither Akbar nor Mohammed were in all day today and, of course, no mail as yet even though Mohammed told me that some had arrived August 4, three days ago! They are always telling us that mail has arrived and then don't give it to us for several days. They never will understand how much mail means to us.
September 26, 1980: (328th Day !): This morning had another fight to get breakfast and to make the terrorists understand what we wanted, yet breakfasts are always the same--bread, butter, jam, tea and orange juice! We got cold tea and then only half a glass, very little bread, butter and at first no jam until I managed to make him understand what it was! We also made a special request to go out in the sun early today since we didn't get any yesterday. Shortly thereafter old Hamid came in "just to see how we were" (so he said). I asked him what the "war" was all about and how did they feel knowing they had enemies? [9/22 Iraq invaded Iran] He said that it was only "for practice" which, of course I don't believe since they have been much too scared the past few months for it to be just "practice" which they would have been aware of. Just whose planes they were shooting at, of course, I don't know. It would be good to know that they are ours--and I would even be glad if they were Russian. It might make these jerks realize that they are opposing powerful forces and it is high time to learn that they are playing with fire to keep opposing the U.S. with Russia right on their border. Anyway, Hamid seemed to want to make conversation and wanted to know what I did all day, etc. I told him that every day was the same--that I did my exercises, studied Spanish, did some reading, wrote some letters but pointed out to him that we were restricted again so I didn't spend much time writing: that we usually played two or three games of Scrabble in the afternoon and that I did some reading, but not as much as before since I was studying Spanish now.
We then got on the subject of mail and I told him how little I was now receiving and he said he would look into the matter. I don't know whether he is now back as our supervisor, or what, but I bitched to him about all my complaints; how I was no longer going to cooperate by cleaning up the library and the exercise room as Jerry and I did; how we have difficulty keeping the toilet supplied with items necessary for cleaning and doing dishes; how we only get one shower a week and then don't get out in the sun as I consistently request; etc., etc. I showed him how long it takes for me to receive letters and told him that the problem wasn't in the transmission (since I recently received one letter from the U.S. in only 7 days) but that the mail just laid around here and wasn't given to us regularly. I pointed out to him how much mail I usually receive, of which he is well aware as he was our mailman for months. He said he would look into it, but I doubt it.
I harped at him about how their entire system was wrong; how the students (whom I called terrorists) went out of their way to make us angry and then wondered why we became so. I told him that they were exceptionally cruel and unkind which he denied, saying that they were not "terrorists" but students but I told him that when I am kept for almost a year in a locked room, constantly guarded by so-called "students" with loaded guns, when I couldn't even go to the toilet or for showers without being blindfolded and constantly guarded--then, in my opinion, they were terrorists and had no right to call themselves anything else. I reminded him about how cruel they were to my wife to keep us separated, especially since I was no longer a young man, had never had anything to do with Iran before I came here, that I was sent here for 45 days and have been held for almost a year and am treated like a child, and that when they do things like this they are "terrorists" pure and simple and had long ago ceased to be students. He said that they tried to be kind to us but that "our government" was the one that was difficult as it wouldn't agree to anything. I reminded him again that I told him and other student-terrorists right from the first day of our captivity that the U.S. Government would never agree to negotiate with "gangsters and terrorists" and that while they may not consider themselves to be terrorists and gangsters, that is exactly what they are regarded in the eyes of the world.
Shortly after he left Jerry and I were taken outdoors for an hour of sunshine in the vegetable garden enclosure. It was really delightful, as the sun at this time of the year is mellow and warm, without being hot, and we did get our full hour! While there Hamid came to see how we were and reminded me again that they were doing all they could to be nice to us (of which I am not convinced).
Release: The voice came over the Algerian plane's speaker: "You are now leaving Iranian air space!" What a cheer went up from the American hostages on the plane! This was the moment for which we had waited 444 days. Now we knew we were really free! Even though we had been told by the Iranian terrorists that we were being set free, I'm sure all of the hostages didn't really feel that we were on our way to freedom until we actually were out of Iran. So much still could go wrong in the process of obtaining our freedom...but the confirmation that we were actually out of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini's jurisdiction made us finally realize that our ordeal was over! What a magnificent feeling! We were on our way at last! We were going home!
For months it seemed that nothing was ever really going to happen but then we realized that progress was being made to reach an agreement to release us, even though the terrorists gave us little news or hope in that regard, except for their usual vague hints that "something would happen soon"..."we would be released soon", etc.
On January 19, 1981 I was taken from my room which I was occupying with five other hostages, Bill Belk and Jerry Miele of the State Department; John Graves of the International Communications Agency; Colonel Thomas Schaeffer, U.S. Air Force who had been the U.S . Defense Attache prior to the takeover of the Embassy; and Donald Hohman, a U.S. Army Medical Specialist who had been sent to Iran to head the embassy Medical Unit until such time as the State Department would send a qualified State Department Nurse for permanent duty.
Ahmad, who I thoroughly detested and I always referred to as "Shovelface" because of his rather flat facial structure was one of the terrorist-supervisors who had control of the "minor league" terrorist guards who controlled us on a daily basis. "Shovelface" spoke English well and, with a newspaper before him, informed me that "some" of the hostages were to be released that evening and flown to Wiesbaden, Germany and that I was "one of the candidates"! While I couldn't seriously believe that our government would permit or accept the release of some, but not all, of the hostages, the thought raced through my mind..."If I am one of the 'candidates'--how do I win this election?"
The next thing I was taken to another room where I was seated before one of the women terrorists...a young woman gowned in the usual black chador who had interviewed me on previous occasions. It was my understanding that she had spent several years of her youth as a resident of Philadelphia where she attended school and learned to speak English like an American. In spite of her long residence in the United States she was rabidly anti-American! Perhaps living in Philadelphia makes one that way! I don't know. Since she spoke English so well I later learned that she had appeared frequently on Iranian propaganda TV broadcasts to the United States using the name of "Mary" and was well-known to American TV viewers who were following the hostage situation. Several TV cameras were focused on us and Mary asked me to describe my daily activities while being held hostage. I related how I did calisthenics each morning; then following breakfast I would pursue my daily regimen-pacing rapidly across my room for approximately 1200 times to equate two miles of walking; write letters to my wife, other relatives and friends; read, play Scrabble and other games with other hostages in my room, and study Spanish. Mary queried me as to whether I had been well treated to which I replied, "There was much room for improvement in our treatment" Then she asked me whether I felt there was any justification for having been taken hostage. I replied, "There was absolutely no justification...there never was." With that, Mary said, "The interview is over!"