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A former diplomat tells his story in new documentary about Iran hostage crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we want to tell you about a new documentary that looks back at the Iranian hostage crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAKEN HOSTAGE")

BARRY ROSEN: We heard the crowds in front of the embassy. I looked up and saw someone climbing over the gate. And several hundred protesters, some with weapons, started moving all over the embassy.

MARTIN: That was the scene outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, as a mob overran the compound, eventually taking more than 50 Americans hostage. Many suffered harrowing treatment by their captors, many of whom were furious over Washington's longstanding support for the deposed shah of Iran. Most of the hostages were held for more than a year, and they lived with the trauma for much longer than that. Barry Rosen was one of those hostages. That was him we heard from just a minute ago. He was the embassy's press attache when it was taken over. As part of the ordeal, Rosen was blindfolded for days on end and subjected to mock executions.

Rosen's experience, along with others touched by those events, are featured in a new American Experience documentary special, "Taken Hostage." It's a two-part film premiering on PBS this week. And Barry Rosen is here with us now to talk more about his experience and the film. Barry Rosen, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for what you went through. And thank you so much for being willing to talk about it with us.

ROSEN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. Well, so take me back. Like, what was the environment in Tehran? What was it like, say, in the months leading up to the crisis?

ROSEN: If you can recall, on February 14, 1979, the embassy was first overrun by a right-wing Islamic group called the Fadaiyan-e-Khalq (ph). So for those nine months after February 14 and until November 4, 1979, the streets were chaotic. So we were always in a very tenuous situation. And mobs were always running around all the time. And people had weapons in their hands after the overthrow of the shah. So it was a very, very tenuous situation and very troublesome all the time. The streets became more and more crowded. And, in fact, on the morning of November 4, 1979, it seemed to be a situation where it was fraught with danger. And once the crowd of students following the line of the imam moved and jumped over the wall of the embassy, it conjured up one of my worst nightmares, and it came true.

MARTIN: Let me play a clip from that moment in the documentary, if that's OK. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAKEN HOSTAGE")

ROSEN: Before I knew it, 15 to 20 people are pounding on my door - just barge through. And there I am, facing these people. And I said, who are you? He says, you're in the nest of spies. You are our prisoner.

MARTIN: And indeed you were. Do you mind if I ask, like, what was going through your mind at that moment? Did you think that you would live? Did you - I mean, how could you know what was to come? But do you remember what you thought in that moment?

ROSEN: In that moment, I thought, well, OK, it's over for me now. I hoped fleetingly that we would be told, OK, after a few hours, they would decide to order us out of the country. But as the day progressed - as the morning progressed, I was tied up and beaten. And as I was lying on the floor, I heard a radio broadcast from Ayatollah Khomeini supporting the students following the line of the imam. And I knew that I was going to be in a situation where I couldn't get out or might die within who knows how long.

MARTIN: What did they tell you were the reasons for this, though? Like, what - I mean, people like to think that mobs have no logic, but sometimes they do have a logic. And what was the - did anybody ever say, like, why were you being held hostage? What was the point?

ROSEN: When the students were interrogating me, they were absolutely certain that it was going to be another American-attempted coup against the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. And they thought that this would short-circuit the entire attempt to commit a coup. And they demanded the exchange of our lives for that of the shah. The shah had to be sent back. And once I heard that, I knew that this would not end quickly. The United States government would never - never - send the shah back to Iran from the United States. That would be an impossibility - a political impossibility.

MARTIN: And in the film, you explain how there were points at which you lost hope because of how you were treated. Can you just talk about what goes through your mind as the days wear on?

ROSEN: More than anything else, it was fear that was instilled in me. And they treated me so badly that after a while, my defenses were down. And I can honestly say that I just really didn't want to live after a while. And that constant threat to my life, day in and day out, was such that with mock executions, blindfolding, force feeding and living in darkness - it just got the best of me.

MARTIN: There's so much we learn from this documentary. There's - as painful as it must have been for you and the others to recount it. But obviously, you think it is important. And what are some of the things that you hope - along with what you just said - that you hope that we will draw from and think about when we think about the U.S.-Iranian relationship?

ROSEN: Well, I think we have to think about American foreign policy and the issue of human rights. And as - though the Biden administration keeps talking about its foundation is of human rights, I want to see that implemented all over and everywhere that the United States has a relationship with any country in the world because if we don't stand up for that principle, then there's nothing else that we could really support. And I believe successive administrations, in many ways, talk about the issue of human rights. But they need to implement those issues and be strong advocates for it.

And when it comes to Iran, I think we need to work with our allies in reducing any diplomatic relationship with Iran, especially the EU. Hold them responsible for whatever they are doing and hold those who take hostages responsible in the regime and support the fundamental rights of all Iranians in Iran right now, especially this new movement that is trying to secure a democracy in Iran.

MARTIN: That was Barry Rosen. You can hear more about his experiences during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis in the American Experience documentary "Taken Hostage," premiering on PBS November 14 and 15. Barry Rosen, if I could just say thank you once again for talking with us. Thank you for surviving this experience, and thank you for helping us make sense of it.

ROSEN: Thank you, Michel. It was good to reconnect with you after all these many years, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.