Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Beginning of the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Today is Election Day in the United States.

It is also the 35th anniversary of an event that had a tremendous influence on the election that was held the next year, in 1980, and many elections to come. It still influences thoughts and acts in the 21st century.

I'm speaking of the takeover of the American embassy in Iran on Nov. 4, 1979.

By comparison, I guess the world of 1979 seems quaint when stacked up against the world of today. In today's world, an American diplomat can be killed in an attack on a U.S. embassy, and many Americans won't even bat an eye. But, in 1979, the takeover of an American embassy was a shock to complacent Americans.

The only real interaction Americans had had with the Middle East was over the price of oil. Now, they were faced with political Islam, and they had no idea what to do.

Not unlike Barack Obama's experience with Benghazi, the Jimmy Carter administration was warned by the embassy in Tehran that radical Islamists would attack it. This warning came only weeks before the actual takeover. In the wake of the Islamic takeover, the American–supported shah of Iran fled to Mexico, where it was discovered that he was suffering from cancer. It was recommended that he be allowed into the United States for treatment.

The embassy warned Washington that it would be overrun by radical Islamists if the shah was allowed into the United States. Carter permitted the shah to be allowed into the country, and the embassy was taken over.

We may not know how Obama reacted to Benghazi until after he leaves office and writes his memoirs — if then. According to Carter, he agonized over the hostage crisis. "I would walk in the White House gardens early in the morning," Carter wrote in his memoirs, "and lie awake at night, trying to think of additional steps to gain their freedom without sacrificing the honor and security of our nation."

Carter did mention the warning in his memoirs, observing that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told him in early October that diplomat Bruce Laingen was reporting that "local hostility toward the shah continues and that the augmented influence of the clerics might mean an even worse reaction than would have been the case a few months ago if we were to admit the shah — even for humanitarian reasons."

One by one, Carter wrote, his foreign policy advisers sided with allowing the shah into the United States for medical treatment. "I was the lone holdout," Carter wrote. Eventually, though, he relented, permitting the shah into the country. Less than two weeks later, a group of Iranian students, believing that the move was part of a plot to restore the shah to power, stormed the U.S. embassy.

Nov. 4, 1979, was "a date I will never forget," Carter wrote. "The first week of November 1979 marked the beginning of the most difficult period of my life. The safety and well–being of the American hostages became a constant concern for me, no matter what other duties I was performing as president."

Nevertheless, he believed initially that "the Iranians would soon remove the attackers from the embassy compound and release our people. We and other nations had faced this kind of attack many times in the past but never, so far as we knew, had a host government failed to attempt to protect threatened diplomats."

Things were different this time, though. The hostages were held through the next year's presidential election and were not released until after Ronald Reagan, Carter's successor, had been sworn in. Iran insisted the captors had treated them well, and many Americans took solace in the belief that their countrymen did not suffer needlessly — but stories of beatings and torture eventually emerged.

Carter probably will be forever linked in the public's memory to the Iranian hostage crisis, just as Richard Nixon is linked to Watergate and Lyndon Johnson is linked to Vietnam. For many Americans, it summed up the feeling of powerlessness with which they were all too familiar.

President Carter — by that time former President Carter — flew to Germany to greet the hostages, who had been released within minutes of Ronald Reagan being sworn in as Carter's successor. Apparently, the hostages were divided over whether they held Carter responsible for their ordeal. When he greeted them, Carter hugged each one, and some let their arms hang at their sides, refusing to return Carter's hug.

It reminded me of the scene at the Democrats' convention the previous summer, when Carter brought everyone of note in the Democrat Party to the podium and shook each one's hand, even the ones with whom he had clashed, in a show of party unity. But Carter had to chase Ted Kennedy, the man who had challenged him in the primaries, around in a fruitless pursuit of the handshake he desired the most, the one that might reconcile him with disaffected Democrats.

All that was still in the future on this day in 1979. As I recall, the takeover of the embassy didn't really cause that much of a stir initially in the United States. Maybe that was because Americans just hadn't dealt with this kind of thing very much. Maybe they figured it was simply a matter of negotiating with the students who had taken over the embassy and that the hostages would be released in a day or two. That was how it usually worked out.

Not this time.

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