06.15.09

Former Iran Hostage: This Isn't a Revolution

Moorhead Kennedy was taken hostage in Iran in 1979 and watched the government crumble. He tells The Daily Beast’s Benjamin Sarlin about why regime change is unlikely this time around.

Plus, read more insight on Iran's election from other Daily Beast writers.

Are we witnessing the second Iranian revolution? One American diplomat who was taken hostage during the last revolution tells The Daily Beast he thinks the Ahmadinejad government will hold firm.

Images of thousands of young Iranians demonstrating in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi have drawn comparisons to the protests that eventually unseated the shah in January 1979 and put the current theocratic government in place. Some observers, like The Huffington Post's Sam Stein, have gone so far as to suggest that the current movement could overthrow the Islamic government in similar fashion, and columnists like The New York Times' Roger Cohen have described the country as "close to the brink."

“It’s very counterproductive to interfere in someone else’s election,” Moorhead Kennedy Jr. said. “I think the best thing the U.S. can do is shut up.”

Moorhead Kennedy Jr. has a different take. Kennedy was the acting head of the United States Embassy's economic section when it was overrun by student protesters in 1979, setting off a 444-day standoff as the U.S. sought to secure their release. In an exclusive interview, he told The Daily Beast that the government appears far stronger in its position than it did 30 years ago, when the shah was unable to prevent protesters from putting in place a provisional revolutionary government that, in turn, was too weak to prevent hardliners from taking over the country.

"The difference is when we were taken over as hostages, the provisional government had completely lost control, it was anarchy," Kennedy said. "At this point, although there was a strong reaction on the part of the Mousavi crowd to the reelection of the president, it seems the government has things under control. It looks to me from my reading that it will stay that way."

Kennedy has spent the last three decades since his release advocating increased understanding between the Middle East and America in order to diffuse tensions between the two regions. He said that while the government may have tampered with the election, it was unlikely that it could have done so on a scale large enough to deny victory to Mousavi, who Kennedy said lacked sufficient support outside of Tehran to win under any circumstances.

"I think there's a growing opposition, it sounds like, in Tehran among the better educated people, but throughout the country it looks like [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has things pretty well the way he wants it," Kennedy said.

The best U.S. response to the election crisis, according to Kennedy, is to stay removed from the conflict until the dust settles and then attempt to negotiate with whichever regime emerges. He praised Joe Biden's reaction to the protesters Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, in which the vice president cast doubt on the election results but shied away from a more pronounced condemnation.

"It's very counterproductive to interfere in someone else's election," Kennedy said. "I think the best thing the U.S. can do is shut up."

While he doubts that Iran can be stopped from eventually producing nuclear weapons, he hopes that shrewd, quiet, diplomacy could help secure their cooperation in bolstering the fledgling Iraqi and Afghani governments and perhaps persuade the government to back off from its rigid anti-Semitic and anti-Israel stance.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.