30 years later, Iran still holds us hostage

Vet­eran broad­caster Ted Koppel on how a cri­sis ended, but a war be­gan

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

On Jan. 20, 1981, 52 Amer­i­can di­plo­mats, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers and Marines were fi­nally re­leased af­ter be­ing held hostage for nearly 15 months at the U.S. Em­bassy in Tehran. Amer­i­cans saw it as the end of a long na­tional night­mare. Ira­ni­ans saw it as a suc­cess­ful phase in what the Pen­tagon would come to call the Long War. We were wrong; they were right. On the face of it, the Ira­ni­ans achieved what they wanted. Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter had la­bored with key ad­vis­ers through the last night of his pres­i­dency, desperately try­ing to bring about the hostages’ re­lease be­fore Ron­ald Rea­gan was sworn in as the 40th pres­i­dent. The Ira­ni­ans, though, were de­ter­mined to hu­mil­i­ate our 39th pres­i­dent and were not about to free the cap­tives on Carter’s watch.

As the tele­vi­sion net­works be­gan their In­au­gu­ra­tion Day cov­er­age, the ex­pected moment of re­lease be­came the theme. TV screens were split to ac­com­mo­date par­al­lel im­ages from Washington and Tehran. Just out­side the Ira­nian cap­i­tal, cam­era crews were taken to Mehrabad In­ter­na­tional Air­port, where the soon-to-be-for­mer hostages would board their flight to free­dom.

At ABC News, where I worked at the time, one of our cam­era crews had been granted ac­cess to the Oval Of­fice the pre­vi­ous night. We had video of Carter, look­ing grim and ex­hausted, in a cardi­gan, con­sult­ing with his aides un­til, quite lit­er­ally, it was time to dress for the in­au­gu­ra­tion of his suc­ces­sor. Those im­ages and live shots of des­per­ate diplo­macy, fol­lowed by the stately run-up to the trans­fer of power in Washington, played on one side of the screen. The prepa­ra­tions for de­par­ture from Mehrabad played on the other.

The Ira­ni­ans stage-man­aged the drama down to the last sec­ond. Pre­cisely at noon, just as Rea­gan be­gan to re­cite the oath of of­fice, the planeload of Amer­i­cans was per­mit­ted to take off. The Ira­ni­ans’ mes­sage was blunt and un­am­bigu­ous: Carter and his ad­min­is­tra­tion had been pun­ished for Amer­ica’s sins against Iran, and Rea­gan was be­ing of­fered a con­cil­ia­tory ges­ture in an­tic­i­pa­tion of im­proved be­hav­ior by Washington.

That was hardly the in­ter­pre­ta­tion that the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion put on the event. The new pres­i­dent por­trayed the hostage re­lease as a long-over­due act by which the Ira­ni­ans ac­knowl­edged the ob­vi­ous: There was a new sher­iff in town. The feck­less days of the

Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion were over, and the Ira­nian mul­lahs had bowed to the in­evitable. In­deed, the ad­min­is­tra­tion seemed to be say­ing that Iran’s great­est con­cern was now the pos­si­bil­ity of U.S. re­tal­i­a­tion for the hu­mil­i­a­tion of the pre­ced­ing 444 days.

That last point prob­a­bly was a part of Iran’s strate­gic cal­cu­lus. Iran was not then, and is not now, any mil­i­tary match for the United States. With­out the Amer­i­can hostages in Tehran, Iran was plainly vul­ner­a­ble to U.S. power.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing its po­si­tion, since Septem­ber 1980, Iran had been fight­ing a mas­sive in­va­sion by the Iraqi forces of Sad­dam Hus­sein, the be­gin­nings of a bloody war that would last most of the decade. The United States of­fi­cially pro­claimed neu­tral­ity — Henry Kissinger fa­mously ob­served that it was a shame both na­tions couldn’t lose— but Washington con­sid­ered Iran the greater threat and covertly as­sisted Hus­sein.

Once the hostages were re­leased, how­ever, no reprisal came, and the Ira­nian lead­er­ship of­fered no ev­i­dence of want­ing to rec­on­cile.

In their ap­proach to the United States in the decade that fol­lowed, the mul­lahs pro­vided chill­ing ev­i­dence of how closely they had stud­ied the in­flu­ence of the me­dia and pub­lic opin­ion on U.S. for­eign pol­icy. Dur­ing the hostage cri­sis, they learned how ob­ses­sively en­gaged our news me­dia be­comes when U.S. pris­on­ers are taken. What Amer­i­cans con­sider one of our great­est na­tional virtues — con­cern for the in­di­vid­ual— the Ira­ni­ans rec­og­nized as a vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

We in the Amer­i­can news me­dia have a ten­dency to ob­sess over one cri­sis at a time, of­ten to the ex­clu­sion of other im­por­tant is­sues. In­deed, I can hardly over­look my own role in this. The ti­tle that ABC News gave to its nightly cov­er­age seemed hy­per­bolic at first, but it proved fright­en­ingly pre­scient: “Amer­ica Held Hostage.” The story held Amer­ica’s in­ter­est so tightly and for so long that our spe­cials on ABC even­tu­ally mor­phed into a reg­u­lar pro­gram — “Night­line.”

Iran watched and learned. They re­al­ized that the fix­a­tions of the Amer­i­can me­dia could lead to shifts in U.S. pol­icy. They ob­served how the hostage cri­sis cost Carter a sec­ond term, and they would soon learn that what in­flu­enced one ad­min­is­tra­tion could be ap­plied to an­other.

On Oct. 23, 1983, a truck loaded with ex­plo­sives was driven into a bar­racks build­ing in Beirut hous­ing U.S. Marines, who were there as part of an in­ter­na­tional peace­keep­ing force. The driver died in the sui­cide at­tack, as did 241 Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel. Even­tu­ally, the bomber was iden­ti­fied as a mem­ber of an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Hezbol­lah, which was be­lieved to have been funded and trained by mem­bers of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps.

By the time even that much was es­tab­lished, Rea­gan had or­dered all U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel in Le­banon evac­u­ated to ships of the 6th Fleet, off the coast. A brief time later, those ships re­ceived fresh or­ders and sailed off. There had been no great pub­lic sup­port for en­gage­ment in Le­banon in the first place, so there was lit­tle re­ac­tion to the abrupt de­par­ture. (The U.S. in­va­sion of Gre­nada, oc­cur­ring at the same time, con­sumed much of the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion.)

Iran saw how a dev­as­tat­ing at­tack could force Amer­ica out of Le­banon, with lit­tle out­cry back home and no re­tal­i­a­tion for the bomb­ing. And just as hostages had proved use­ful to Iran dur­ing the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion, they would be used again to ma­nip­u­late the Rea­gan White House. Dozens of Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans were kid­napped in Le­banon and held hostage dur­ing the early and mid-1980s. Again, Hezbol­lah was be­lieved re­spon­si­ble, and Ira­nian pa­tron­age was more firmly es­tab­lished.

In rel­a­tively short or­der, these tac­tics would draw the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion into one of the more bizarre covert ne­go­ti­a­tions in re­cent his­tory. Among those kid­napped in Beirut was the CIA’s sta­tion chief, Wil­liam Francis Buck­ley. He was held and tor­tured for 15 months, and at one point he was re­port­edly taken to Iran. He died in cap­tiv­ity. Rea­gan’s dis­tress over Buck­ley’s or­deal in par­tic­u­lar, and over the fate of other Amer­i­can cap­tives, was a fac­tor be­hind the Irancon­tra af­fair.

Far from pun­ish­ing the Ira­ni­ans, Washington ar­ranged for Is­rael to sell weapons to Iran. The Is­raeli stock­piles would be se­cretly re­plen­ished by the United States, which was legally pro­hib­ited from sell­ing di­rectly to Iran. In re­turn, Iran would free some hostages. Fi­nally, Iran’s pay­ment for the weapons would be used to buy arms for anti-com­mu­nist forces in Nicaragua, thereby cir­cum­vent­ing a con­gres­sional ban on sales to the con­tras there. That was the ic­ing on the cake.

It was a fi­asco. Rea­gan, whose staunch op­po­si­tion to com­mu­nism around the world would lead to the col­lapse of the Soviet em­pire, found his ad­min­is­tra­tion em­broiled in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the spon­sors of Hezbol­lah. The scheme clearly cir­cum­vented U.S. law, and had oth­ers in the ad­min­is­tra­tion not taken the fall, it could have led to Rea­gan’s im­peach­ment.

What Iran learned in those years— and we’re still ab­sorb­ing the con­se­quences of those lessons to­day — is that kid­nap­ping and ter­ror­ism are use­ful weapons against the United States. Ul­ti­mately, Rea­gan’s broad-shoul­dered bravado was no more ef­fec­tive in deal­ing with Tehran than Carter’s mild-man­nered diplo­macy.

We’ve still not found our way. In­stead of tak­ing mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran, the United States has twice in­vaded Iran’s bit­ter­est en­emy, Iraq. And what Iran couldn’t do for it­self, Ge­orge W. Bush did for it: Sad­dam Hus­sein is gone, and Tehran’s in­flu­ence in the Per­sian Gulf is greatly en­hanced.

There was ev­ery rea­son to cel­e­brate the re­lease of those 52 Amer­i­cans on Jan. 20, 1981. But what Iran learned then and has ap­plied in the decades since has been costly for the United States. Here we are, 30 years af­ter what we thought was the con­clu­sion of a cri­sis, still won­der­ing if the end will ever be in sight. Ted Koppel, who was man­ag­ing edi­tor of ABC’s “Night­line” from 1980 to 2005, is an NPR com­men­ta­tor and a con­tribut­ing an­a­lyst for “BBC World News Amer­ica.”


In Novem­ber 1979, one of the Amer­i­can hostages held in Tehran was dis­played to a crowd out­side the U.S. Em­bassy. The cap­tives weren’t re­leased un­til Jan­uary 1981.

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