Idaho Rep. George Hansen's One-Man Mission to Iran Leaves Official Washington Fuming
“This is Armageddon country,” Rep. George Hansen reflected expansively in his Tehran hotel room last week—but for Hansen, Armageddon is the only place to be. In the best Gary Cooper tradition, the 6’6″, 49-year-old Idaho Republican rode alone into Iran on a self-appointed “mercy mission”—and promptly accomplished what the Carter administration could not. He held talks with high-ranking officials of the Iranian regime and became the first American to visit the 49 hostages in the occupied embassy. “They said it couldn’t be done,” Hansen crowed after his embassy visit. “They said you couldn’t get in. We got in. That was really something.”
Yet what Hansen had accomplished—and at what cost—was an open question. For the record, the State Department was cautiously complimentary. “We have been saying all along that we wanted to get an independent appraisal of the state of our hostages, and Hansen managed to do that,” acknowledged a spokesman. But Hansen’s lone-rangering had official Washington privately fuming at what it feared was a potentially perilous grandstand play. His nationwide publicity, moreover, raised the threat that other media-hungry congressmen might flock to Tehran and set up a distracting clamor of free-lance diplomacy. “All I know about George Hansen,” said one blunter Administration source, “is that he has no business doing what he is doing. The guy is an oddball.”
Hansen is, at the very least, mercurial. Shortly after the embassy takeover, he called on President Carter to urge a swift military assault on Iran—and soon was recommending (alone) that Carter be impeached for his failure to act. Then, consulting neither the Administration nor congressional leaders, Hansen obtained a visa from Iran’s Washington embassy and quixotically took off for Tehran. After only five days there, he changed tack 180 degrees and began retailing a line on the crisis that most observers placed somewhere between misguided and boneheaded. “There is a good feeling among the Iranian people toward the American people,” Hansen reported. “Here in the [Intercontinental] hotel they can’t do enough for you.”
Although the Ayatollah Khomeini had urged his nation’s young people to arm for war against America—and threatened to try the hostages as spies—Hansen dismissed such talk as posturing. “They may say a thousand times ‘Death to the Western dogs!’ but they don’t really mean it,” he says. “It’s just rhetoric. The Ayatollah has a colorful way of expressing himself.” As for the gunpoint takeover of the embassy, Hansen now says: “The people here feel that the Shah committed great crimes and that our government supported him for 25 years. Seizing the embassy was a severe reaction, but they feel that certain people in our country precipitated it by allowing the Shah into the country.”
Although Hansen strongly condemned the seizure, his willingness to see the Iranians’ side of things obviously went down well with the Revolutionary Council, earning him both an audience with Foreign Minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and his helpful meeting with the hostages. “They could use some sunshine and a change of clothes,” he said afterward, “but the premises are clean and warm. These kids [the Iranian guards] have an awful lot of people to look after, but I don’t think the hostages are being abused.” Emboldened by that breakthrough, Hansen tried unilaterally to end the impasse. The Ayatollah himself scotched the first effort—a congressional investigation of the Shah’s alleged crimes in return for the freedom of the hostages. As for the second, it seemed a joke: Exchange Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, two of the Shah’s strongest defenders, for the hostages. Meanwhile, Washington officials slowly burned at the thought that Hansen might encourage the regime to think it could wring concessions from a divided American government. “Nobody here wants to give the appearance of compromise,” Hansen insisted. “But there is room for accommodation.”
Hansen has made a career of such earnest if headless horsemanship. A devout Mormon, he served in the Air Force, then graduated from Idaho’s Ricks College. He worked variously as a high school math teacher and insurance salesman before making his political move. In his broken five terms in Congress, Hansen has voted straight conservative and riled environmentalists (who rate him among the “Dirty Dozen” on ecological issues). He made his name with a much-publicized and utterly fruitless trip to Bolivia in 1977 to negotiate the release of 40 Americans held there on drug charges. Last summer, as Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was teetering toward his downfall, Hansen ostentatiously flew to his aid with supplies. A fund-raising organization that Hansen founded—in his wife’s name—pays for such adventures.
In 1975 Hansen was convicted of a technical violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act and sentenced to a two-month jail term. The judge later rescinded the sentence, noting that “Congressman Hansen was stupid, surely, but he wasn’t evil.” That legal embarrassment may dissuade him from trying—for the third time—to unseat Democratic Sen. Frank Church next year.
The dim view of Hansen’s swashbuckling mission to Iran is not quite unanimous on Capitol Hill. “I consider George Hansen a hero,” says fellow conservative Rep. Robert Dornan of California. “In an age of non-heroes, he is a bitter pill for many of the petty, jealous House members to swallow.” But the reaction of most congressmen toward Hansen’s cowboy diplomacy has been less envy than dismay. “It was an adventurous trip,” as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Clement Zablocki puts it, “and a foolish one at that.”