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40 Years Later: The Role of Algerian Diplomacy During the Iran Hostage Crisis

by Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui Executive Chairman, Nord-Sud Ventures Consultancy Center and NESA Alumnus

25 January 2021 – On January 20, 1981, an “Air Algérie” Aircraft landed on the tarmac at Algiers international airport, coming from Tehran, with 52 American diplomats on board, who had just been freed after 444 days of being held hostage at their embassy in Tehran.

To recap, while the United States welcomed the Shah of Iran, exiled in Mexico after the Islamic revolution of January 1979, 400 students attacked the American embassy in Tehran. After a two-hour siege, they invaded the scene and took 63 hostages as well as administrative staff. Their demands were clear: the release of the hostages in exchange for the delivery of the Shah to stand trial in Iran. Yet, the United States was unwilling to surrender its former ally, which it received for medical purposes, and it did not want to give in to Ayatollah Khomeini, suspected of being responsible for this operation. Thirteen hostages were released during the first weeks, while 52 had to wait for another 444 days. The 2012 Ben Affleck movie Argo depicted the escape of the very first hostages.

Yet, this story was much more than a Hollywood script and it turned out that the two countries in crisis chose Algeria as a mediator, at least for the second phase. Thus, the Algerian Government set up a “flying committee” of high-ranking experts, who, from Algiers, ensured communication between both the American and the Iranian governments, by shuttling as necessary, sometimes to Washington, sometimes to Tehran, and by also receiving their representatives in Algiers.

The mediators had to meet specific conditions: to be of a high level, to have a great deal of experience in international negotiation, and to have technical knowledge in various fields to find solutions adapted to various problem sets. The choice therefore fell mainly on three personalities: Abdelkrim Ghrïeb, Algerian Ambassador in Tehran; Redha Malek, Algerian Ambassador to the United States; Seghi Mostefaï, Head of the Central Bank of Algeria; as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed-Seddik Benyahia, as a negotiator-in-chief.

The three mediators began their work on November 10, 1980, and more than being just a channel of communication between the two countries in conflict, they worked on preparing the way for a solution that was likely to be accepted by the two antagonists by circumscribing the scope of the negotiation and reducing the differences between the positions of each parties.

The negotiations were stuck on a specific point, linked to the financial “quantification” of Iranian assets seized by the USA. The Algerian mediators then proposed the idea of an Algerian Declaration which would set out the “independent obligations” of both the United States and Iran instead of the classic form of the Bilateral Agreement.

On January 19, the Algiers Agreement was signed. The hostages were then released and flew to Algiers the day after and were then returned to their country on January 27, 1981.

Faithful since its independence to the values of dialogue and cooperation, Algeria did not hesitate to contribute, without departing from its neutrality, to the happy outcome of the crisis between the two countries.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of this event and on this occasion American diplomat John Limbert sent a message of thanks and gratitude to Algeria and its people: “I would like to express my deepest personal gratitude to the people and Government of Algeria for their example of humanitarian and diplomatic work they set at that time. As one of those held hostage in Iran, I will never forget the assistance of our  Algerian diplomatic colleagues, including Ambassador Redha Malek in Washington and Ambassador Abdelkrim Ghrïeb in Tehran,” said Limbert in a video recording entitled, “Thanks Algeria”, posted on Facebook.

He further added, “Nor can I forget the Algerian doctors in Tehran, the crew of the Air Algerie plane that took us out of Iran and the warm reception we received at 3:00 am on a cold January morning at Houari Boumediene Airport. Five years after those events, I had the honor of serving as a first secretary at the American Embassy in Algiers.  My family and I will never forget the kindness and hospitality we experienced from the Algerian people. Although 40 years have passed since that fateful day, the memory of the kindness and the professionalism of Algerian friends remains fresh in my memory. I, for one, will never forget your assistance and friendship. With best wishes to the proud people of this beautiful country,” concluded Ambassador Limbert in his video message.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.

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