Carter's One Regret

In a revealing new interview, The Daily Beast’s Reza Aslan talks to Jimmy Carter about what he would have done differently in the bungled hostage rescue of 1980—plus, the “political suicide” of condemning Israel.

The first time I saw Jimmy Carter I was five years old. It was New Year’s Eve, 1977. Carter had come to Iran to spend the evening with Muhammad Reza Shah, Iran’s soon-to-be dethroned monarch. The response from the Iranian public to Carter’s visit was electric. Throngs of people lined the streets as his motorcade inched its way through Tehran en route to the royal palace. After the Nixon/Kissinger years, Iranians, and in particular the youth, pinned their hopes for change in Iran on a president who came to power promising to curb American involvement in the affairs of foreign countries, not unlike how many in the region are now looking to Obama to remake the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world. I watched the spectacle on TV, too young to understand the significance of what was happening. Two years later, the Shah was forced out of the country. A year after that, my family left Iran. History has been critical of some of Carter’s decisions with regard to Iran, including that New Year’s dinner, in which he broke the hearts of many Iranians by toasting the Shah’s reign over Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” But I will always remember him as the president who came to Iran and I imagine that, a few years from now, another five year-old Iranian boy may watch another American president’s motorcade pass through the streets of Tehran.

But there’s nothing I would have done differently… except I would have sent one more helicopter to rescue the hostages.

As he published a new book about peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, I talked to Carter about what he thinks Israel should do in the West Bank, the right definition of “apartheid,” and what he would have done differently in the infamous hostage rescue back in 1980.

Q: As you lay out in your new book We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work, the parameters of the two-state solution have been laid out for so long that everybody knows what must be done. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians already accepts those parameters. So then why does the two-state solution still seem so far from becoming a reality?

A: So far it’s been because the Israelis have not been willing to take the crucial step, and that is to withdraw from the Palestinian territory, the West Bank. And this is a crucial point and Israel has not only kept increasing [the settlements] in number, but have built highways among all the settlements from which the Palestinians are now excluded. And they started building a wall in the Palestinian area of the West Bank, and apparently the inexorable moves have been to forego the possibility of the two state solution. If [the Israelis] accept this two state solution they’re going to have to withdraw from the West Bank enough for the Palestinians to have a rival and contiguous state. They haven’t been willing to do that yet.

Q: It seems that for about 40 years or so the “status quo” benefited Israel and now it’s as though a tipping point has occurred, demographically speaking, so that it will not be long before there are more Arabs than Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. This is the true existential threat to Israel is it not?

A: That’s exactly right. I quoted [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak in condemning that as an unacceptable possibility, but it’s happening. At this moment there are more non-Jews than there are Jews in that one state area. And there will soon be a majority of Arabs in that one state area, which means that Israel will have only three completely unacceptable options. One is what you might call ethnic cleansing, which nobody wants, and that means forcing Palestinians to leave the land, and of course they would not be received well at all in Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt. The second option would be to have a nation within which you would have two classes of citizens: One, Jews with votes; the other, Arabs without votes. And that would be the equivalent to the apartheid situation in South Africa. The third and only remaining option is for the Arabs to have a majority of votes, and with some division among Jews, not much division, and Arabs pretty much voting as a block, they would control the whole government and you would no longer have a Jewish state. So that’s the option, the other one is to have a two state solution.

Q: Now you brought up apartheid, so we’ll have to go back to your last book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which I thought was a very even-tempered critique of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and which caused a frenzy among Israel’s supporters in the United States. David Horowitz called you a Jew-hater, a genocide-enabler, and a liar in Front Page Magazine. Do you regret using that term apartheid?

A: I chose the title very carefully for two reasons. One, at the time I wrote it, there had not been any debate at all in this country [in the media] emphasizing the plight, or the rights, of Palestinians, and that’s what I wanted to emphasize. Secondly, for five and a half years there had not been one single day of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and I wanted to precipitate some move, politically speaking, in that region. So I crafted the title very carefully. First of all, it doesn’t relate to Israel, it applies to Palestine, and there’s no punctuation in it. Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. But I realize that the word apartheid would be notable and controversial, and the apartheid thing is a very accurate description. If you look at the internationally accepted definition of apartheid, it’s when two different peoples occupy the same land, like the West Bank, and they’re completely and legally separated and segregated, and one dominates the other. That’s the definition of apartheid, and that’s what’s happened [in the Occupied Territories]. It’s not related by definition to racism or to South Africa or anything else. So yes, I did it deliberately and I don’t have any apologies to make. And, in a way, it accomplished its purpose. But the main generic purpose of that first book was to let the people of the world, mostly in the US, know the sad plight of the Palestinians, and the purpose of this book is to point out that we can still have peace.

Q: Abe Foxman, the national director of ADL, criticized Obama’s choice of George Mitchell as Special Envoy to the Middle East because he thought Mitchell would be too neutral, too balanced. Why is it that Americans seem to have such a difficult time relating to the suffering of the Palestinians? It seems so easy for most Americans to relate to the situation of the Israelis, but it is almost impossible for some to accept the Palestinian narrative.

A: That’s exactly right. I read [Mitchell’s comments] with great interest. And that’s accurate. AIPAC [The American Israel Public Affairs Committee] is the dominant voice among the Israeli organizations in this country. And if you look at the purpose of AIPAC, it’s not to promote peace, it’s not to bring peace to Israel, it’s to promote and defend the policies of the incumbent government in Israel. And so they defend Israel. It’s politically impossible, as you know, for any member of Congress to make a public statement condemning or criticizing the policies of Israel. It would be political suicidal for them to do so. A lot of the members of Congress agree with me, some very high up in the Congress. But if they came out publically and said it, their seats would be in danger. The other major factor that I point out in the book is the religious attitude of Christians, like me. I’ve taught the Bible all my life and I believe in the rights of Jews to have a place in the Holy Land, and so I have a natural affinity for that right. I believe that the right of Israel to have a place in the Holy Land can be honored by the two state solution, to abbreviate a long premise, and I think the only way to have peace is by following the basic road I’ve been following for the last 30 years, to try to bring peace to Israel through negotiation.

Q: I have to say that I’ve noticed a slight shift in the way the media and, in fact, the average American on the street, viewed this latest war in Gaza, as opposed to the way they viewed the war in Lebanon two years ago. I’ve noticed a greater willingness in the US media to be critical of Israel and its actions in Gaza. Do you sense that as well?

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A: In fact, public opinion polls show that that is definitely true. I think that is going to change, and the most vivid, tactful demonstration of change is the election of Obama. The first week or day that he was in office, he made it clear that peace in the Middle East would be a high priority for him. And his choice of a special envoy, George Mitchell, compared to the previous special envoys chosen, is remarkable. As you point out, this one might be neutral. The others have not been neutral. Sometimes they have been professional lobbyists for Israel. But I think those changes are taking place. The other thing is when we get down to a genuine negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, and have a strong interlocutor, or mediator, or negotiator like George Mitchell, and you reach a point where they’re going to disagree still, which is inevitable—the Israelis say one thing, the Palestinians say another—at that point, it could very well happen that Obama will say “we’ve done the best we could, we still have differences between Israelis and Palestinians. This is what I think is a fair solution, and the United States will use its influence to bring about this solution.” That would have a major impact, because inherently, a majority of Israelis want to give up the West Bank for peace, and obviously the same thing is desired by the Palestinians. The strong voice of the president of the United States will have a major impact on public opinion, not only in this country, but also in Israel and also in Palestine.

Q: Obviously you’ve got the ear of the new President. What would be the one lesson you would like him to learn from your experiences trying to end the conflict in the Middle East?

A: The United States has to play a major role early in your administration and be extremely forceful in bringing the negotiations to a conclusion. It’s got to be early, deeply committed, and persistent.

Q: But, of course, that begins with recognizing a role for Hamas in whatever negotiations proceed from—

A: —That could come later. I wouldn’t even advise George Mitchell, on this trip, to meet with Hamas. It’s too early for that. I met with Hamas last month, and Hamas has committed to me, and publicly on Al Jazeera and so forth, that it would accept any agreement negotiated between Palestine and Israel, provided it is submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum, or if there’s an elected unity government, if the government officials approve that agreement. That means they accept Israel’s right to exist, to live in peace, and so forth. And so that’s a major step forward that there to be plucked when the right time comes along in dealing with Hamas. But to start negotiating right now with Hamas, I think would be premature.

Q: A lot of Middle East analysts, myself included, say the clock is ticking on the two state solution. In my estimation, we have maybe two or three years before there is no longer any real hope for a two state solution. Do you feel that way?

A: The clock is ticking—I wouldn’t want to put a time limit on it at this point. But Israel’s leaders, including [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert himself said we’ve got to withdraw from the West Bank with slight exchanges of property, we’ve got to share Jerusalem and so forth. The alternative is a one state solution. So Olmert is convinced, and I don’t have any doubt that privately Barak and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni are also convinced. I don’t know about [Likud party leader Benyamin] Netanyahu. But I think that the Israeli leaders are convinced, and it will only take a slight—maybe not a slight, but a strong move from the United States—to let them do what a majority of Israelis want anyway, and that is to have a two-state solution with Israel withdrawing from the West Bank.

Q: If Netanyahu becomes the next Prime Minister, all bets are off?

A: I don’t think so. In fact, I’ve met with some very knowledgeable people about the Middle East, I don’t want to quote them now, but they are well known people, and they are kind of hoping that Netanyahu will be elected. They think he might be the best possibility for a resolution. I don’t share that opinion myself, but I don’t think it makes much difference to the facts as I’ve described to you, as I’ve described in the book.

Q: That is certainly true. The facts may be unalterable. But one thing the Israeli government, and especially the Likud party, is guilt of is that they too often sacrifice future longer security and stability for the possibility of achieving short-term security.

A: Well I’m not sure that Likud is any more guilty of what you just said than the other two parties.

Q: That’s a good point.

A: I think they are all, including the Democratic and Republican parties in this country, quite often influenced by short term political gains rather than much long term security gains, so it’s not a singling out anyone for criticism.

Q: Changing gears for a moment, if you don’t mind. This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. I am Iranian and was in Iran not just when the Shah was kicked out in 1979 but when you arrived in Iran in 1977. I have a vivid memory of your visit in my mind. We now may have an opportunity to reconsider the last 30 years of American foreign policy towards Iran. What advice would you give to President Obama about how to approach Iran?

A: Well I wouldn’t want to tell him specifically what to do, but obviously he’s already promised publicly and privately, both before and after he was elected president, that he was going to open up communications with Iran. The current president of your former native land has made some very abusive remarks in reaction to that statement: that the United States would have to apologize to Iran for 60 years of abuse, or something like that. Well, if you discount him and go to the more responsible members of the government and the people of Iran, I think that when Obama reaches out to Iran with a Secretary of State going there, or a National Security Advisor, a Defense Minister, to explore possibilities for accommodation, I think that person would be received well. My advice for Obama concerning Iran is just to do what you already promised you would do, open up communications with Iran. Which is what I did after the Shah was deposed, as you know when the revolutionary government came in, I still had diplomatic relations with Iran, otherwise the hostages wouldn’t have been there. We had about, as you know, 60 some diplomats in Iran, they had about the same number in Washington.

Q: Thinking back now, is there anything you would have done differently with regard to Iran? Would you have handled the Iranian revolution and the downfall of the Shah differently, if you could? Some have said that the United States should have seen the revolution coming.

A: I don’t think any intelligence agency in the world saw it coming. I think the [anti-Shah] audiotapes that Ayatollah Khomeini was sending into [Iran] had such a pervasive affect, undetected by any outsiders, that the downfall of the Shah was a surprise to everyone. So no, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, and there’s no way I could have supported the Shah from America so as to prevent the revolution from taking place. We didn’t have that much influence and I wouldn’t have sent troops in there to keep the Shah in power. I let the Shah come into the Untied States for treatment with a terminal cancer illness, and I had a commitment, a direct commitment, from the [provisional] president [Abolhassan Bani Sadr] and the prime minister of Iran [Mehdi Bazargan] to protect our people in Iran, if I did so, provided that the Shah wouldn’t make any political statement after he arrived at the New York hospital. And he didn’t. But a group of young militants, as you know, took hostages and after a couple of days the Ayatollah’s son endorsed them and then later the Ayatollah endorsed them, and that’s how it degenerated, as far as I’m concerned. But there’s nothing I would have done differently…except I would have sent one more helicopter to rescue the hostages.

Q: Are you optimistic about what things will look like—both in Iran and in the Middle East—eight years from today?

A: Yes, I’m optimistic, compared to the present circumstances being improved. As I mentioned in the book in one paragraph or so, the best way to constrain Iran’s potential movement towards nuclear capability is to have peace in the Middle East, peace between the Israeli and the Palestinians. To end the official war that still exists between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon. I think that would remove, to a substantial degree, the threat that Iranians feel if they need to defend themselves, and that would lessen the inclination to move to a military weapon, if that’s what they plan to do, and in a broad way, lessen the influence of Iran, the prestige of Iran that has built up because of the Iraq war. So the end of the Iraq war and peace in the Middle East would be the two things that would put Iran back into a place of less negative influence to potential terrorism, and less of a feeling that they would need to have nuclear weapons to defend themselves.

Q: Mr. President, thank you so much for your time.

A: I enjoyed talking to you. Thanks very much.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the international bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.