Time to Get Over the Iran Hostage Crisis

The harrowing 444-day ordeal that still poisons Iran-American relations came to an end 30 years ago today. Stephen Kinzer on conservative politicians and former hostages who say it’s time for the countries to bury the hatchet.

01.19.11 10:38 PM ET

Thirty years after American hostages in Iran were released, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, said in a radio interview that the American policy of sanctioning Iran was foolish and self-defeating. Shocked, I asked him why he thinks the United States pursues this policy, and why it has been so relentlessly hostile to Iran for so long.

“It goes back to the hostage crisis,” he replied without hesitation. “They've never gotten over it.”

Lamentably, he is right. For the U.S., the hostage crisis remains the central, inescapable, defining fact of U.S.-Iran relations. It ended 30 years ago Thursday, on what was also Ronald Reagan's inauguration day. The four-deck banner headline in The New York Times read: “Reagan Takes Oath As 40th President; Promises an 'Era of National Renewal'; Minutes Later, 52 US Hostages In Iran Fly to Freedom After 444-Day Ordeal.”

Devastating as the hostage crisis was, few could have imagined that its effect would be so long-lasting.

Devastating as the hostage crisis was, few could have imagined that its effect would be so long-lasting. U.S.-Iran relations are as hostile today as they were when the hostages were freed on January 20, 1981. This has become the world's most dysfunctional relationship. No other two countries have been at each others' throats so intensely for so long.

Even several former hostages, including the highest-ranking one, Bruce Laingen, regret that the memory of their captivity has so fully poisoned the U.S.-Iran relationship. “Traumatic as the emotional fallout of the hostage crisis was for Americans, should it be allowed to make even preliminary moves toward better relations unthinkable?” Laingen has wondered. “Admittedly, few single instances of danger involving American citizens abroad ever commanded the national stage so totally as did the hostage crisis in its time. Ever since then, the image of Iran among most Americans has remained highly negative.”

As Laingen went on to point out, the religious regime in Iran has done much to reinforce this negative image. Its nuclear program, its anti-Israel rhetoric, its support for militant groups in the Middle East, and its intensifying repression at home all contribute to anti-Iran feeling in the US. Not even all these provocations, however, would have been enough to give this conflict such a bitter, angry edge. That comes from the hostage crisis. Thirty years after it ended, the emotion this crisis stirred continues to paralyze America's diplomatic imagination. Until it dissipates or is somehow pushed aside, relations between the U.S. and Iran are unlikely to improve.

Each side in the US-Iran standoff feels deeply wronged by the other. For Americans, the hostage crisis was that wrong. They see it simply: Government-sponsored militants captured American diplomats in violation of every law of God and man and subjected them to a terrible ordeal.

The militants who seized diplomats on Nov. 4, 1979, were outraged that President Jimmy Carter had agreed to admit the deposed Mohammad Reza Shah to the United States for medical treatment. Most Americans assumed that the militants were driven only by blind, nihilistic hatred. In fact, they were animated by a very specific fear: that the U.S. would repeat the pro-Shah coup it organized in 1953.

When the hostage crisis burst onto front pages, almost no one in the West knew that the U.S. had sponsored a coup that brought down Iran's last democratic government in 1953. Yet for Iranians, this coup—not the hostage crisis—is the key episode in the history of US-Iran relations, the moment when things started going bad.

In 1953 Iranians drove the Shah into exile, but CIA agents working in the basement of the American embassy staged a coup and brought him back. “So traumatic was the coup's legacy that when the Shah finally departed in 1979, many Iranians feared a repetition of 1953, which was one of the main motivations for the student seizure of the U.S. embassy,” the Iranian scholar Mostafa Zahrani wrote in World Policy Journal in 2002. “The hostage crisis, in turn, precipitated the Iraqi invasion of Iran, while the [Islamic] revolution itself played a part in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan. A lot of history, in short, flowed from a single week in Tehran.”

The 15-month hostage crisis was deeply humiliating for Americans, all the more so because it came so quickly after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. A nightly TV news program, America Held Hostage, seared this humiliation into the national soul with endlessly repeated images of blindfolded and handcuffed American diplomats being paraded before triumphant placards that taunted, “US Can Not Do Anything.” This debacle, punctuated by a failed rescue mission, decisively weakened President Carter and contributed to his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

It is now clear, thanks to the publication of memoirs and once-secret documents, that American diplomats in Tehran pleaded with Carter not to admit the Shah. But the Shah's American friends, among them David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, pressured Carter intensely, and in what turned out to be one of the worst decisions he ever made, he finally succumbed. As he did so, he eerily asked his aides, “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” No one had an answer, but Carter admitted the Shah anyway.

For most Americans, the story of US-Iran relations begins and ends with the hostage crisis. History looks quite different to Iranians. For many of them, the hostage crisis was just one of many long-term effects of the episode they believe truly defines this relationship: the 1953 coup. They see it as the moment when the West robbed them of democracy and set them on the path toward dictatorship.

With no common understanding of history—with, in fact, directly opposing narratives of their relationship—it is understandable that the U.S. and Iran are still snarling at each other. Yet the oddest aspect of their long hostility is that these two countries have many long-term strategic interests in common. The most enduring legacy of the hostage crisis is the anti-Iran bitterness it left in Washington. Emotion is always the enemy of sound policy, and emotions unleashed in the U.S. by the hostage crisis have for 30 years prevented cool, reasoned assessment of the benefits reconciliation might bring to both countries.

Iran is the natural enemy of radical Sunni movements like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Iran can do much to help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has vast energy resources and a crumbling oil infrastructure that needs billions of dollars in foreign investment. No major American strategic goal in the Middle East can be reached without Iran—and Iran can never be secure as long as the U.S. remains its enemy.

Many professional geo-strategists, including more than a few in Washington, see this clearly and wish for a better US-Iran relationship. Most politicians and their sponsors, though, remain reflexively anti-Iran. Their reasons are largely emotional. They believe that since Iran has hit the U.S. several times, most devastatingly in the hostage crisis, respectful negotiation is not possible until Iran is somehow hit back.

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.