Recalling the hostage crisis that made Iran forever hostile to the US

Recalling the hostage crisis that made Iran forever hostile to the US
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Forty years ago this week, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by revolutionaries apparently angered by diplomatic contacts between the nine-month-old, post-Shah Islamic regime and U.S. officials. This motive, seeking to make the new Iran implacably and permanently hostile to the United States, has been very successful, in the judgment of most of us. The elusive question has been whether the people of Iran share their government’s view so that by changing their leadership, a new relationship could be created.

On the positive side, there is a persistent belief that Iranians actually like individual Americans, although not successive U.S. administrations. The foundations for this, being largely anecdotal, are commensurately weak. I was the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran for six months after the embassy seizure and on Nov. 23, 1979, I reported: “A westerner walking in the street meets fewer jibes of ‘Yankee go home’ than at the time of the revolution,” which I also had covered earlier that year. On the negative side, there is the danger that sanctions will hurt these Iranians more than the regime, a case of U.S. policy shooting itself in the foot.

But there are things happening that might give cause for optimism. Last weekend, Iraqi Shia protestors in the holy city of Karbala attacked the local Iranian consulate — an outrageous action! Are diplomatic premises not sacrosanct? I doubt whether Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appreciates irony, but many of the rest of us do. The protests in Karbala, as well as in the major Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra, seem to be part of “Arab Spring 2.0” sweeping portions of the Middle East, to protest government corruption and incompetence. In Iraq, they seem to have an anti-Iran angle, which may seem strange because both countries are majority Shia Muslim, and Iraq was the first domino that fell to Iran after the disastrous American invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.


My album of newspaper clippings prompts a considerable sense of déjà vu. “Carter warns Iran of grave consequences” was one headline. In another story, I wrote that the “students” who took over the embassy “show a confidence born of religious conviction and a belief that they hold most of the cards. … At times they appear a rag-tag collection of poorly-trained guerrilla fighters hardly capable of organizing a press conference, but some are very sophisticated.”  In one story, I wrote that the foreign minister at the time was “very much a man of many faces.”

Those early months of the revolution showed the fragility of the Islamic regime. In December 1979, there was an open disagreement between Turkish-speaking Azeris in the northwestern city of Tabriz supporting a clerical rival of the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A radio station was seized and there were clashes that killed and injured people. In Tehran, a senior clerical aide of Khomeini was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. The chaos occasionally was ridiculous: Two correspondents of Time magazine were expelled, victims of bureaucratic muddle, after successfully winning an interview with Khomeini himself, who was going to be “Man of the Year.”

On a professional level, the job was challenging. I wrote: “Deciding on how much store to put on the statements of Iranian officials … is just as much a problem for diplomats as it is for journalists.”   

In retrospect, the hostage crisis established the regime. Hardliners were given the powers to assert their authority and they seized the opportunity. Picking a fight with the United States made it an enemy, boosting Iranian nationalist pride. Similar ingredients underlined the impact of the eight-year war with Iraq after Saddam’s invasion in 1980. Israel, always diplomatically unrecognizable, is now the enemy du jour

Could Washington do anything to change this? President Obama tried but failed. The Iran of Ayatollah Khamenei did not want to be friends, and with President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE has even less reason to try. The restraint on U.S. pressure used to be that it was trying to avoid backing Tehran into a corner and prompting it to lash out. But then in September, Iran launched a wave of cruise missiles at the Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia’s greatest concentration of oil processing infrastructure. To the astonishment of allies, there was essentially no response from the U.S. Perhaps it is grasping at straws, but might it be that the lack of a forceful response could change the way that Tehran defines its antipathy to America?

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.