The Foreign Service Journal, October 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2019 53 A Challenging Mission Bruce Laingen’s mission was, to put it mildly, challenging. When the Islamic Revolution failed to deliver the promised paradise to Iranians, America—and Bruce Laingen—was the scapegoat. First, we were still there, in our large compound and massively ugly buildings (“Hender- son High”) in downtown Tehran. Second, things were not going well. There were violent clashes in ethnic- minority regions. There were brawls between Islamist and leftist gangs in offices, schools and universities. Someone had to be responsible, so all problems were attributed to “Ameri- can mercenaries.” The Iranian media—under strong leftist influence—spouted ugly personal vitriol against him. But he never gave up. In July 1979, in the clearest language, he had warned Washington against admitting the Shah of Iran to the United States. His prophetic message said: “It may be the right thing to do, but not now, while Iran is still in chaos.” He pre- dicted three results from admitting the shah: • The moderate provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan will collapse. • Any chance of normal U.S.-Iranian relations will disappear. • The U.S. embassy will be lost. He was right on all points, but in October 1979, when the U.S. president agreed to admit the shah, Bruce Laingen’s wise and prophetic advice was ignored. I remember two special stories. In 1980, while he, Regional Security Officer Mike Howland and Political Officer Victor Tomseth were detained at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Swiss Ambassador Erik Lang delivered a diplomatic bag with blank employee evaluation reports (EERs) for all embassy employees. Bruce and his colleagues patiently wrote reports on everyone, returned them to Ambassador Lang, who forwarded them to the State Department via the Swiss embassy in Washington. A few months later I read in a letter from home: “Congratula- tions. You’ve been promoted.” I never knew how it happened until we were freed, and I learned the story. It is the best EER I ever received, and I had nothing to do with its composition. The second story involved Bruce Laingen’s meeting with Mohammad Shirvani, a young Iranian filmmaker visiting Washington in the summer of 2007. (In those less hysterical days, such exchanges were still possible.) After a conversation at Bruce and Penne’s Bethesda home, he invited Shirvani to a July 4 neighborhood gathering and introduced him to the neighbors. To put it mildly, the residents were shocked to see an Iranian filmmaker at their party. That July 4 conversation— in which Bruce says that, after 30 years of pointless estrange- ment, Iran and the United States must find a way to talk to each other—became the most moving section of Shirvani’s documentary 444 Days . The Perfect Professional Bruce never gave up seeking some way for Iranians and Americans to stop shouting at each other and begin talking. He never carried a grudge, and saw the good in everyone. When he was chairperson of AFSA’s awards committee, he once suggested we consider Henry Kissinger for the association’s “Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy” award. He seemed surprised when the response from the group ranged from embarrassed silence to “Over my dead body.” Someone even pointed out to him that Kissinger was partly responsible for President Jimmy Carter’s disastrous decision to admit the deposed Shah of Iran in 1979. COURTESYOFTHELAINGENFAMILY The Laingen family gathered in front of their home after Ambassador Laingen’s return from Iran, Jan. 28, 1981. From left: Chip, Penne, Bruce, Bill and Jim.