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 détente.
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.