Former Iran Hostage Fears History Will Repeat If Yemen's President Enters U.S.

PHOTO: Yemens President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Yemen on Dec. 24, 2011.
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A former Iranian hostage is "thunderstruck" that the U.S. is considering allowing beleaguered Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to enter the country for medical treatment.

Barry Rosen and 51 other Americans were taken hostage by Iranian students on Nov. 4, 1979 after President Carter allowed the deposed shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment.

"This is absolutely putting [Americans working in the embassy] in total danger," said Rosen, who served as the press attache in the American embassy in Iran when the building was stormed. Rosen and the others were held for 444 days.

Rosen, who is now executive director of public affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College, said the chance of Yemenis invading the American embassy in the capital city Sana is a "good possibility."

"I am personally thunderstruck by this," he said. "There is no reason to bring him here. He is a murderer...and the Americans in the embassy are absolutely trapped."

Saleh announced Saturday he had applied for a visa to visit the United States on the grounds that he needed medical treatment for shrapnel wounds and burns suffered during the bombing of a mosque near his presidential compound in June.

The U.S. State Department released a statement today, denying reports that Saleh's visa had already been approved.

"The United States is still considering President Saleh's request to enter the United States for the sole purpose of seeking medical treatment," acting spokesperson Mark Toner said in a statement.

Saleh has become a reviled character in the past 11 months of anti-government protests that kicked into full gear after the uprising in Tunisia in January 2011 and ushered in an era of political unrest in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.

In the past year, Saleh is accused of ordering the killing of protesters and has reneged on his promise to step down on several occasions. Last month, Saleh signed an accord in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, agreeing to transfer power by next February.

"This is a guy who really loves to keep people off balance and people to know not what is going on," said Gary Sick, who was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is now a senior reseach scholar at Columbia University.

"He uses lies as a means of distracting attention while he goes about consolidating his power," Sick said.

Sick said he sees parallels between the shah's situation and Saleh's request, but he doesn't think Americans in Yemen would be extraordinarily compromised by allowing Saleh to seek treatment on U.S. soil.

"Obviously the Iranians thought allowing the shah to seek treatment was a preparatory step for returning the [him] to the throne," he said. "I think the U.S. has made it clear they are not at all in favor of Saleh returning to power. [He] is a totally different character from the shah."

For Rosen, the sense of deja vu is too strong too ignore.

"The people in Washington know nothing about what goes on on the ground or any sense of a historical record" he said. "It will be so sickening if this happens again."

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