Another look at the Iran Hostage Crisis

A week from today, Washington will awaken to election results across America that reflect the state of our politics in 2009. Meanwhile, thousands of miles from here, radical forces will undoubtedly mark the anniversary of an event that symbolized our politics in a more troubled time – the Iran hostage crisis.

It was on Nov. 4, 1979 that several hundred students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, capturing and holding 52 diplomats and staff for 444 days in a crisis that disheartened the nation, destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency and helped set the stage for the ascendance of Ronald Reagan.

It was, more than anything, an event that reflected the national drift and disarray, the military weakness and moral confusion, in the America of that time. The hostage crisis and other big events of the late 1970s are worth another look, for they offer a cautionary tale for a nation that faces challenges today that seem eerily similar.

By the mid-1970s, America had tired of the Cold War. Presidents Nixon and Ford sought to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, pursuing arms control agreements as part of their overall strategy of détente.

Americans also had tired of the most recent incarnation of Cold War conflict, this one in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. The United States washed its hands of Vietnam in early 1975, evacuating its last personnel from the South and clearing the way for a brutal takeover by the North.

Two years later, a newly elected President Carter sought a still less confrontational, more cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union, blaming at least some of the Cold War hostility on the United States. In a high-profile commencement address at Notre Dame University just four months into his tenure, he expressed relief that America had overcome its “inordinate fear of communism.”

But, rather than seek cooperation in return, America’s enemies smelled weakness and responded accordingly. The Soviet Union and Cuba sent troops across Africa to incite Third World revolution in, among other places, Ethiopia, Angola, and Rhodesia (what’s now Zimbabwe).

By late 1979, an even more emboldened Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, directly threatening U.S. interests in the region and forcing Carter to reverse course by making clear that the United States would use any means necessary, including military force, to protect those interests.

America’s retreat from Vietnam, Communist meddling in Africa and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, paint a disconcerting picture of U.S. weakness. But it is the Iranian hostage crisis – how it began, why it continued, and when it finally ended – that offers the most telling lessons for the America of today.

In the late 1970s, domestic opposition to Iran’s Shah – a staunch U.S. ally – was building due to his imperial ways and his crackdown on domestic dissent. In February 1979, he was overthrown in a revolution that put Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who returned from Iran after a long exile, atop a new, rabidly anti-American regime. Carter sought ties with that regime, but Khomeini chose to further flame the fires of anti-Americanism and start what has been, in essence, Iran’s 30-year war with America.

Early on the morning of Nov. 4, several hundred students seized the U.S. embassy. They planned to stay for just a few days. Indeed, they didn’t tell Iran’s leaders beforehand, fearing the government would block the effort.

But, when Carter reacted meekly, allowing the seizure to continue, Iran’s government endorsed it. Students blindfolded embassy staff and paraded them before the TV cameras. What began as a short-term protest morphed into a long-running display of U.S. impotence. ABC News captured the American mood of helplessness, creating the nightly show “America Held Hostage” (which later became “Nightline”).

Five months into the crisis, American prestige took another hit, adding to the domestic feeling of helplessness, when a military attempt to capture the hostages (Operation Eagle Claw) ended in failure, with the mission aborted – but not before several aircraft failed and eight servicemen died.

On January 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. He had promised a forceful response to future attacks on U.S. interests, along with a rebuilding of America’s military and a reassertion of its power.

Twenty minutes after Reagan was sworn in, Iran transferred the hostages to U.S. custody.

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