Welcome Back, Great Satan

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Ex-radicals invite the American hostages to a reunion

Bruce Laingen wants to go back to the scene of his 444-day ordeal as a hostage in Iran. He was the ranking U.S. diplomat in Tehran when radical Islamic students seized the embassy, and mobs chanting "Death to America" gathered outside. The standoff ended in January 1981, leaving a curtain of anger between Iran and America that Laingen and fellow captives now hope to lift. Their return on a journey of reconciliation "would be a great, symbolic way to open up relations," says former hostage and embassy spokesman Barry Rosen.

The surprising inspiration for this mission comes from the hostage- takers themselves. Older and mellower now, many of these former firebrands are now key advisers to President Mohammed Khatami, who was elected in 1997 and is now trying to bring Iran out of its isolation. His vice president for the Environment, Massoumeh Ebtakar, was known and generally despised by the American hostages as "Mary," the student translator. Other former radicals now use Tehran's increasingly free and irreverent press to support Khatami's opening to the West, which passed a milestone last week when Khatami visited Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II. "We should destroy the walls of mistrust," says Mohammed Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a leader of the embassy siege who has since softened his opinion of the "Great Satan," America. At a public commemoration of the occupation last November, Asgharzadeh invited the hostages to return--this time "as guests of the Iranian nation."

The former hostages and their captors are already speaking with one voice. They are urging Washington to compromise with Khatami and begin easing sanctions on Iran. While the Clinton administration officially welcomes reconciliation, its public utterances still tend to dwell on Iranian nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism. "The way [the American administration] is playing its hand today is much too cautious," says Laingen, who is now with the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. "People change. People react to the circumstances of the time."

Khatami is a mullah for the 1990s. His trip to Italy was the first visit by a top Iranian leader to Europe in more than 20 years. Wearing his clerical turban and robe, Khatami was chauffeured around in a bright blue Maserati limousine. Ignoring protests by exiles, he cut a billion-dollar deal with French and Italian companies to develop one of Iran's off-shore oil fields. …