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America and Iran need each other Ever since the Hostage Crisis ended, the two countries have been waltzing out of step

The impact of the Hostage Crisis reverberates today (Photo by Alain MINGAM/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The impact of the Hostage Crisis reverberates today (Photo by Alain MINGAM/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


January 20, 2021   6 mins

The American is blindfolded. A white sheet envelopes his face, almost mummifying him. White tape binds his hands, which are drawn defensively across his groin. All around him stand men: dark, bearded, serious. Each wears a shirt, unbuttoned at the collar and without a tie – that symbol of the hated West. The American is being paraded because now it is they who have the power.

This photograph is one of several from the Iranian Hostage Crisis that has lodged in the collective consciousness of the modern Middle East. It was a truly historic event – one that would come to sour US-Iran relations far more than the Iranian Revolution that precipitated it. It began on 4 November 1979 when a group of students calling themselves the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the 52 embassy staff inside hostage. They would keep them captive for 444 days, releasing them, finally, on 20 January 1981 – 40 years ago to the day.

Fast forward four decades and today Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. When he enters the White House, he will find a world cowering from a pandemic and a country strafed by civil unrest. But perhaps his biggest problem will only come into focus when he turns to face the east: Iran.

As Biden knows, the Islamic Republic of Iran poses a problem that has remained unsolved for 40 years. Even today, the Hostage Crisis remains at the heart of the US’s relationship with Iran – or perhaps more correctly, its lack of one. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the so-called Nuclear Deal between Iran and the UN Security Council Powers plus Germany — lies moribund after Donald Trump unilaterally abrogated it in 2018. In the years since, Iranian proxies have wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq, while the regime has busied itself killing dissenters. Biden’s options are few. He can’t even speak directly to Tehran. The two countries are implacably opposed. Both carry scars that remain livid on both sides — and they were formed in that embassy all those years ago.

The hostage crisis occurred amid the turmoil of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when a combination of nationalists, leftists and Islamists overthrew Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, then Shah of Iran, forcing him to flee the country. They then set about fighting over who would take power: a battle the Islamists quickly and comprehensively won. A 76-year-old cleric from the provinces, Ayatollah Khomeini, became Supreme Leader, and brought with him a new system of government, the Velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist), which mandated overarching rule by the religious jurists, or Mullahs, like him.

If 1979 marked a rupture in internal Iranian politics, then the hostage crisis was the Islamic Republic’s march on to the international stage. Despite the Shah’s fall, Washington wanted to salvage its friendship with its foremost Gulf ally and a number of meetings were held with Iran’s interim Prime Minister. Things looked hopeful. But then US President Jimmy Carter allowed the cancer-ridden Shah into the USA for medical treatment. Iranians were enraged. The anti-US protests and chanting that had swelled throughout the year suddenly erupted with the storming of the embassy.

How much did Khomeini know about the attack? He wasn’t forewarned, but undoubtedly then gave the hostage-taking his approval. There is no way that the diplomats could sit there for over a year without his say so. The truth is that it benefited him. Enraging the United States meant weakening moderates in Iran while strengthening his Islamist base, which rejected all ties with the “Great Satan”. It wasn’t just that the US had, along with Britain, organised the overthrowal the Iranian president in 1953, or that the Shah was seen as an American lapdog. It was something even more primeval: the US was the chief source of Gharbzadegi — literally “west-struckness” or westoxification — by which Western ideas and culture had seduced and corrupted Iranians. And there was something else, too: payback. “You have no right to complain,” a hostage-taker told a furious American captive, “you took our whole country hostage in 1953.”

Things got worse. On 24 April 1980, seeing that negotiation was going nowhere, President Jimmy Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw, a Delta force mission to rescue the hostages. It was a disaster. A combination of poor weather conditions and logistical problems meant the mission was aborted, though not before one of the helicopters crashed into the ground.

Back home, the US media railed against Carter. His 1980 election defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan was largely down to his failure to get them out. Iran had brought down an American president. But before he left office, Carter struck back. He froze billions of dollars of Iranian assets abroad, imposed sanctions and isolated it diplomatically. He threw American weight behind Iranian opposition groups and repositioned US foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia and Iraq to counteract the hostile Islamic republic. Both US politics and the geopolitical constellation of the Middle East had been reordered. And it was the hostage crisis, not the revolution, that did it.

Forty years later, the legacy of the hostage crisis still dominates Middle Eastern politics: the US and Iran have never officially resumed diplomatic relations. Years ago, in the course of researching my book, I interviewed former US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nick Burns, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was Burns, under the leadership of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the presidency of George W. Bush, who first tried to heal relations with the Iranians in 2005. It didn’t work that time, but it paved the way for Obama’s success.

Burns explained to me how, as a diplomat, he felt that the US’s relationship with Iran was the oddest it had with any country, and you couldn’t simply chalk it up to bad blood. Washington had a liaison office in Havana and throughout the Cold War had maintained embassies in Moscow and Beijing. American diplomats had even talked on key occasions to the North Koreans. But with Iran? Nothing.

He was hinting at the almost uniquely dysfunctional relationship between Iran and the US since the Hostage Crisis: at heart, it was so bad because they needed each other. For the Islamic Republic, the need to defend Iran from the United States is its ideological lodestone — it can never permit relations to become too warm. Even when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in desperate need of sanctions relief because of Iran’s chronic financial woes, allowed President Hassan Rouhani to speak to Barack Obama (thus ending almost 40 years of silence at the official level) and eventually conclude the Iran Deal, he made it clear that their cooperation would stop there. There would be no dĂ©tente.

On the other side, for a certain strand of American politician keen to burnish their hawkish credentials and grab some attention, being tough on Iran is a guaranteed political, and often fund-raising, winner. This is not to draw equivalence between the two sides, but to observe that for four decades Iranian-US relations have been characterised by a unique dialectic that has played an increasingly central role in organising each side’s understanding of the other.

Like unlucky lovers, timing hasn’t been on their side. In 1988, after eight years of horrific war with Iraq, Iran’s leaders were less keen for the country to export its Islamic revolution than to rebuild bombed-out schools. Around a decade later, the reformist President Mohammed Khatami even went on CNN to talk about a “Dialogue among Civilisations”, but found US administrations reluctant to talk. Later, it was Barack Obama who, in his first formal TV interview after taking office declared that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Unfortunately, squatting in Tehran was the malign and absurd Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It wasn’t to be.

This relationship, which is far more than a collapsed deal centring on nuclear centrifuges and enriched uranium, is what Joe Biden must now address. And fixing it is what he must do for any deal to last. Iran is a 5,000-year-old civilisation with a well-educated population of over 80 million and huge oil and gas reserves. It dominates the Persian Gulf and controls the Straits of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. You cannot adequately deal with the Middle East without it; and you absolutely cannot lock it out of the international order forever.

Yet Trump looked the other way and Obama confined negotiations to the nuclear issues; the Iranians insisted on it. But now that Iran’s need for sanctions relief is even more desperate, Biden must tackle the country’s human rights violations, its regional belligerence, its support for terror and funding of proxies that undermine Iraq and Lebanon. But if Iran moves, he must, too. He must ease sanctions and help to rebuild its shattered economy. Ever since the Hostage Crisis, America and Iran have been waltzing together, locked in each other’s arms, but always out of step. Forty years after the event that changed the history of the Middle East, we must hope that a new President can succeed where every other one before him has failed.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘Biden must tackle the country’s human rights violations, its regional belligerence, its support for terror and funding of proxies that undermine Iraq and Lebanon.’

There is more chance of Corbyn becoming leader of the Conservative Party than there is of Biden tackling Iran’s human rights violations. His party will be too busy with their own human rights violations against Trump supporters. As for tackling Iran’s support for terror, when Trump did this he was accused of starting World War III.

Then we have the usual stuff about Iran being a 5,000 year old civilisation. You might as well say the same about Greece or Egypt. As far as I can tell, it is hundreds or thousands of years since Iran embodied any form of advanced civilisation. Essentially it’s just a very large Islamic dystopia that keeps its own people in misery and would happily impose that misery on the rest of the world if possible.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I’d say a fair few decades since Iran was a civilisation. Under the Shahs it was actually quite active as a civilisation.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

Well, yes, to some extent, but under the Shah it was not democratic, and he oversaw a brutal and repressive police/army.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

How about France though. The writer says Khomeini was from a small town… Bur really he was from France, where he was courted by the intellectuals for his talk of peace and love and Sunni/Shia brotherhood and so on, during his 10 years in exile there before he was airlifted in to take over the revolution. France and Islam is always crazy, they have a natural instinct to get them wrong.

When ever I read of the past I usually find France in the background instigating all the crazy disasters, every time. I think the French just cannot help being such a thorn in USA and UK, it just is an instinct with them, that they will always mess things up.

I actually blame the entire Iraq disaster on them. They (with the German sidekick trouble makers) refused to join the entire free world in pursuit of Saddam’s WMD hunt. This emboldened Saddam to refuse the inspectors, and when the fight began they just kept back being against everything emboldening the opposition to keep fighting, and then gave succor to Syria, their old friend, and kept Syria being a huge thorn by allowing the Iraqi ‘freedom fighters’ to escape across the border to Syria and refuge – and I think were instrumental in what later went on there, and on and on, and do not get me talking of WWI, WWII, Vietnam,,,,,

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Country was still
Relatively modern etc. Democracy isn’t always necessary for modernity.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Will he deal with China’s human rights violations when he has sorted out Iran?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

He’s dealing with China’s human rights violations next week, Iran the week after that. Happy days!

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Iranians are a great people, and a proud people, and they are still the same people who had greatness in the past. Iranians are not Arabs, but Persians, or Aryans.. They are intellectual, the best art, poetry, literature, architecture of the region came from them. They always revered education and intellectualism, and have been great immigrants in the West.

One point is very true above – The Iranian people always liked and admired America, and so the Religious tyrants had to keep at eternal war with USA so any public display or positive attitudes to the West could be stamped out violently as being traitorous. This antipathy to USA is manufactured, and is not what the people feel, or wish.

Mossadegh being displaced by voting irregularities by the wicked Dulls Brothers in 1953 has been a very effective tool to hit USA and UK with (and is poetic that Biden is tainted by many Americans by this same issue, ha), and the Embassy disaster is one we beat them with – but time is long past to get over this.

Iran and USA need to be friends. We are natural friends, I hope USA really makes Iran the top priority in reconciliation, but the tyrants in power, what to do? My guess is just to give in pretty much to them and soon normalization will cause them to lost power like Castro because the people are sick of being outcasts in the world – they are lost if the state of war is over.

Shia/Sunni? Iran wanting to dominate the region? I think again normalization may be the best thing. Get them back to being members of the civilized world, where they belong, by getting the actual citizens holding democratic power. When MacArthur had absolute power in occupied Japan he had Americans write them a Constitution (in 9 days) and forced the Japanese to accept it, one of the main things forced, and resisted, was giving women the right to vote (which was unimaginable to them). MacArthur did it because he said if women can vote Japan will never be a warlike place again, it would calm their aggression instincts. Iranian women vote, and hold a fair bit of power, professionally and so on, but giving the people the power instead of the tyrants will stop them being such a militant force, as the citizens just want peace and prosperity, not this war and hostility and oppression. If the tyrants have no war to keep themselves in power I would expect the citizens will vote in peace and prosperity instead of militarism.

Time to turn the other cheek and welcome Iran back into the civilized world.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

We are constantly being told that Iranians are a great people – and I agree that Iranians do great things when they come to the West. But if they are so great why did they fall for all the nonsense and evil of Islam?

m pathy
m pathy
3 years ago

I read this article wondering how the US needed Iran. 5000 years of civilisation and a nice people whom you cannot leave out of conversations was what I got. Oh, and the US must resume being the ME’s policeman. It must stop Iran’s human rights abuses (how?), solve regional instability (the recent historical record of that is abysmal) and build its shattered economy(why?).

Ridiculous crap. I saw absolutely no benefit for the US. What I read was a plan as shortsighted and naive as Obama’s to entrench a regime that caused all those problems in the first place. A regime that its own people despise. The concerns of a number of US allies – sunni muslim states and Israel – over a US-Iran rapprochement were not addressed. The fact that the mullahs are not good faith actors was not addressed. Iranian nuclear ambition will have to be stopped by force, the US just needs to look away.

In fact the post- pandemic period is a good time to watch Teheran carefully for cracks in its power structure and to if not aid, then not to hinder the uprising that will follow.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Biden must tackle the country’s human rights violations, its regional belligerence, its support for terror and funding of proxies that undermine Iraq and Lebanon.
Sure. That’s what we can count on Biden to do. Are you familiar with Joe Biden and his near half-century record of mostly leeching from the public trough?

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yes and then there is that midnight pallet of money…

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Carter was another weak man and he poured gas on it. But then Reagan poured more gas on it because he thought all foreign peoples were Americans inside just waiting for a chance to get out. This curse in thinking has been the West’s greatest problem. The failure to know different peoples and cultures are not like us and have different values and wishes and thinking.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘Biden must tackle the country’s human rights violations…’

I have remarked on these words below, as indeed have others. But sit back and think just how utterly disconnected from all reality you must be to have written them. It has become obvious over recent years that many of the journalists and commentators are as dumb and deluded as the politicians. And it is nonsense like this that has driven so many of us away from the MSM, certainly to the extent that we will no longer pay for it.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I disagree sort of. They need to be part of the entire dialogue, but I think they cannot be what stops actual rapprochement, because the best way to stop them is removing the state of war footing the Theocratic tyrants use to keep their people crushed. As long as Iran is in a state of war, anything not on the side of the war is treason.

The old thing of ‘The beatings will continue till moral improves’ is at play. ‘Human Rights abuse will continue till you stop trying to get human rights’ is the current paradox. 1984 had the state of war as fundamental to Big Brother holding absolute authority.. Stopping the state of war is likely to break the tyrant’s power, or so I would guess.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

Does the US have to worry about Iran if it keeps feeding Saudi Arabia and Israel with arms and expertise?

Vilde Chaye
Vilde Chaye
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

With regard to “expertise” and Israel, it’s probably the other way around.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

yes. The Iranians are really smart and determined people. They need to be brought into the civilized world or they will always be up to no good because they are smart and determined. One main problem with them is their innate respect for authority though. The entire history of Iran, and the entire ME is all the towns, land, buildings, industry was always owned by the select aristocracy. They have been feudal from Islam beginning to, say, the 1970s.

The farming people were not peasants but tenant farmers ( peasant means small landowning farmer, the evolution from serfs to peasants created the West, the end of the feudal, and created us, in Russia the Kulaks were peasants, and so Stalin genocided them as a necessity for his communism collectivizing)) . (5 part tenant farming was the ME norm, land owner, draft animal owner, seed owner, labour, and irrigation, who ever provided each got a 1/5 th share in the crop)

The villages and towns were owned by the feudal master, it was all like this even in the last Shah’s days – he tried to modernize, but too fast. What I am getting at is the Islamic people are respectful of authority as it is fundamental to their past and culture, as are authoritarian overlords. From what I see, even under the repressive and brutal Theocracy the people are getting more Western in thinking, and may be ready for democracy and freedom if the tyrants can be broken by peace, by stopping this endless war-footing and fighting, and the people be let to pick better leaders, ones not so warlike.

ar.khosravi2000
ar.khosravi2000
3 years ago

The article seems very well researched but there is one (pedantic) error that it described the nationalist leader in 1953 who was toppled as Iran’s President, whereas the fact is that he was a Prime Minister and that Iran had never had a president until 1980. Also, it simply looks over the US response to Khatami’s talk of dialogue between civilisation, without mentioning that the Bush administration really stupidly antagonised the Iranians by including Iran in his Axis of Evil speech, when there was a genuine opportunity as the Iranian regime had weirdly shown some solidarity with the US after 9/11 not to mention Qassem Souleimani’s covert cooperation with the US military in Afghanistan I think

m pathy
m pathy
3 years ago

1980 was a longtime ago. The Republicans and the Mullahs had a mutual fear of the communists then. The whole Afghan adventure the Americans embarked on then still has them mired 40 years on.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Right…”the enemy of my enemy is my friend”…for the time being, but then there was that Marine barracks thing-hard to forget. Oh, and the peaceful nukes. The one real chance was the Green Revolution, but we know where Obama/Biden came in on that, don’t we?

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Truly Biden has the opportunity to be the next Jimmy Carter.

Ian Black
Ian Black
3 years ago

“but it paved the way for Obama’s success”… I must have missed something. What ‘success’?

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Black

Check his wealth out.

Ian Black
Ian Black
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Ah! ‘That’ success… silly me.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago

Persia/Iran along with most of Islam gave up thinking about nine centuries ago, with the publication of the ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’ by one Al-Ghazali of Tus,(northern Iran).
This work totally rejected any engagement with the philosophy of Ancient Greek and Rome. Advocating instead the primacy of the Koran.

Four to five centuries later there was a brief moment of hope with the emergence of the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty, but that quickly faded only to leave us with the beautiful city of Isfahan.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

My theory is China did this 2500 years ago with Confucius. Once all was known, to be a perfect and harmonious society, there was nothing new needed to know, and new thinking would just undermine the perfection. So they made study focus on just that perfection, and basically made thinking outside the box, like philosophy, be a crime, and so it stayed.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Yes, I completely agree.
Each dynasty was a Confucian clone, and even the famous competitive ‘Mandarin’ examinations were solely about Confucian philosophy almost to the end of the Qing, the last dynasty.

patrick o’leary
patrick o’leary
3 years ago

” Ever since the Hostage Crisis, America and Iran have been waltzing together, locked in each other’s arms, but always out of step.”
What an ignorant and historically uninformed statement. How about “Ever since the coup of 1953, orchestrated and funded by the UK/US, resulted in the toppling of the democratically elected government of Iran … you can guess the rest.” Maybe read a little history before you blather on about “an event 40 years ago that changed history in the Middle East.” The UK/US have been changing history in the Middle East a hell of a lot longer than that, always to their own benefit. I’ll make it easy for you, just watch the film Coup 53, but only if you want to know the true story.

https://coup53.com/

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Islam has been changing the Middle East for quite a bit longer, and is not finished…with the ME, or us.

Vilde Chaye
Vilde Chaye
3 years ago

America “needs” Iran like a hole in the head. Read Bret Stephens, esp. part 3:
https://www.commentarymagaz

Vilde Chaye
Vilde Chaye
3 years ago

How relevant can this article be given that there isn’t a single reference to Israel in it., despite several references to the JCPOA. Ridiculous.