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tv   Taken Hostage  CSPAN  December 24, 2019 10:31am-10:58am EST

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create a five to six minute documentary that explores the history you want the presidential candidates to address. we're giving away a total of $100,000 in cash prizes with a grand prize of $5,000. for more information go to our website. 40 years ago, iranian protesters stormed the u.s. embassy in tehran, taking 66 american hostages. next on american history tv, author david farber talks about his book, taken hostage. which chronicles their ordeal and examined the u.s. government's first encounter with radical islam. i think the 1979, 1980 hostage crisis between the united states and iran really set the tone, probably for our relationship all the way through today. it was really a significant
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juncture point in how the united states as people thought about political islam, the nation of iran, and let's be honest, how they think about us. there were two powerful movements in iran, both of which worried the united states, but one more than the other. there was a communist insurgency in iran. we worried a lot about that. we sided the shah of iran in part because he crushed that communist dissent in iran. i don't think most american political elites thought too much about the islamic dissidents in that state. it was kind of off our radar. part of the reason i wrote the book i did called taken hostage which i was trying to get across how reasonably so but narrowly slow americans tended to look at our alliances in that part of the world. we didn't think of islam as a political force. we feared communism. we cheered on what we thought as
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capitalist development. we think didn't see the green revolution that was coming. the united states and iran have had a complicated relationship for a long time. really since the 1950s. up until the 1950s, iran was kind of a client state of great britain, but when world war ii ended and britain moved back from its colonial periphery, the united states stepped forward. one of the things we did is we became very involved, the iranians would say too much involved in their affairs. in 1953, the united states, using its brand-new cia helped engineer a coup in iran. after that coup that the united states helped support in iran, the iranian people were of two minds, those that were pro shah.
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that would be well to do people, they tended to look favorably upon the united states. fair to say that a fair number of other iranians did not look so favorably on the united states. really from that coup forward from 1953 until the islamic revolution in 1979, there were a lot of people in iran who looked at the united states and i guess the phrase would become the great satan who did not think we had the right to interfere in their internal affairs. it's interesting to think about when the united states realized they didn't have a good handle of what was happening in iran. there were signs of it in the 1960s. we had a great relationship in iran in terms of training their new elite. if you were a bright iranian man or woman, mostly men, you probably came to a u.s. university. this starts in the 1960s. think about that. think what's happening in the united states in the 1960s. these young iranians are exposed not just to the wonders of the american university, but to the
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dissidents of the 1960 student movements. this radicalized some iranians. it made them think about their own voices and set of concerns. this was a complication for america's relationship with iran. the shah of iran did not expect his young people to come home with a political consciousness. he wanted them to come home with a technocratic consciousness. oil engineers, doctors, not threats to his regime. the iranian revolution, like any revolution is a messy affair. it's not clear to those who are revolting what's going to happen. they don't know the end point. they're living through chaos and violence and turmoil and they're all vying for legitimacy. so the iranian revolution starts to break out at the cusp of 1978, 1979, it's not clear who is going to take control. there's all kinds of factions. there's a communist faction. there's a democratic liberal
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faction. there's a kind of parliamentary republican faction. there's an islamist faction. it's not clear who is going to win. they're all trying to find tools for legitimacy. when ayatollah comes back from exile, it's not clear he's going to become the theocratic leader of his country. there are people who were cheering that on. so by the summer of 1979, his faction, the more islamist faction, the theocratic faction is gaining power and prominence. but young people in particular were trying to figure out what kind of government did thaipey t to liver in. you start to see, unfortunately, i guess from an american
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perspective, a decision by some young people to unify their country, they hope -- they dreamed in a way by creating an external enemy. by unifying the iranian people who are factionalized remember, at this time around one big enemy. we in the united states really almost none of us knew about the 1953 coup. we thought of ourselves as a benign, maybe good progressive force for the iranian people. again, many of them did not see us that way. they had the memory of the coup seared into their minds. this is part of their historical memory. so we're a potential enemy. we're the ones who kept the shah in power, we're the ones who kept the military in power. we gave the internal force their authority. these students decide, they begin to plan. let's protest against the u.s. embassy. it was feared the u.s. might engineer a coup, a countercoup
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against the automomy of the people. one group of students in the midst of many protesters students decide that they're going to make a powerful protest against the u.s. embassy. and, again, we're still even all these decades later not 100% sure what happened or who thought what. there's a strong argument to be made that a group of these students from tehran, universities in tehran, decide to kind of emulate the african-american civil rights struggle. they're going to have a sit in at the u.s. embassy to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the american government's presence in their country. and kind of a witness against american power. when those iranian students decided to make their protest, to witness against power, to plausibly hold a sit in, i think all along there was some who
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knew they were going to go further. what happens is really a catastrophic affair from so many angles. there were thousands of people protesting outside the u.s. embassy. this one group decides, this group of students, to climb the fence to come into the u.s. embassy. maybe to hold a sit in, maybe to do more. and for the american government it wasn't clear what to do even at that moment of crisis. what's the job of the u.s. marine core who are supposed to secure the embassy? it's not to face off mobs of people. we know this, you have to count on local governments to protect the international diplomatic immunity of your embassy personnel. the iranian government didn't do that. and those students who jumped the barricades, climbed into the u.s. embassy suddenly realized they kind of had carte blanche to do what they wanted.
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instead of a peaceful sit in, very quickly it devolved into a hostage taking situation. in which the americans did not fight back with weapons. they ceded to this takeover, assuming it would be short lived. it wasn't short lived, was it? it was 444 days of the seizure of the united states embassy. people understood in the embassy that trouble was brewing in iran. there was a revolution going on. there had been attempts to fortify the embassy but you can only do so much. because there was a sense that there was troubles in iran, the u.s. embassy, which had been a massive affair with huge numbers of personnel had cut back to only the absolute necessary folks. at the moment of the iranian takeover, there were 66 people still working at the embassy. this is an embassy that could have had hundreds of people in it. so the people who were there knew they were in a risky position, they knew it was a
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dangerous post. but i don't think any of them expect what was going to happen to them. this is occurring in november 1979, one year before the 1980 presidential election. president carter is in the final year of his presidency. he knew he was going to run for reelection. so this was a difficult, arguably catastrophic event for his presidential administration. i think when it first happened, when he was first alerted -- he was alerted very quickly to what was going on, he probably saw it as an opportunity. so carter was being criticized from several directions for economic reasons, for political reasons, for cultural reasons, foreign policy reasons, as a weak leader. and he knew if he was going to get reelected he was going to have to convince the american people that he was strong, he was capable, and that he could take care of america's business. so i think at the very beginning when this took off, carter saw
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perhaps a chance to show leadership. he was these thugs trying to take over a u.s. embassy in the midst of turmoil. cha carter would negotiate his way out of this, it would be a happy ending. it couldn't have gone worse. carter did something that in retrospect probably wasn't wise. he took upon himself the leadership for solving this, what he thought was probably a short-term crisis. and he went out in front, he talked to the american people about it. he certainly struinstructed his staff he wanted to be hands on. he was not a delegator like ronald reagan would be. he thought by taking care of this trouble the american people would see him as a strong leader. he basically did everything
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right. that's the irony of this situation. he quickly got ahold of the iranians, he talked to people who he thought were responsible figures in the iranian government. remember, again, the iranian government is not clear who is in charge of what, the ayatollah was seen as a figurehead. who exactly to talk to was a problem for the american government. carter -- he's that kind of mind. he kind of step by step moved through the process to resolve this issue. what he didn't realize was that there was factions in iran that did not want to resolve this issue. that this crisis was good for the iranian factions wanting to create an islamic state. they wanted to maintain a crisis with the united states. you've got an american government trying to resolve an unpleasant diplomatic problem and factions in iran who want to
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foster and inflame this crisis to gain legitimacy for the islamic faction we're trying to really see total control by that time. two negotiating partners who have very different interests. in terms of the takeover of the u.s. embassy, religion had always been an factor. there was a strong sense many of those protesting outside the embassy -- remember, it doesn't happen in one day. it takes place over time. there were strong islamic presence in those protests. again, big faction of the revolutionary movement are students and islamists of all kinds, older folks as well. so the united states government is conscious of that, but doesn't really see them as a primary threat. we're still thinking soviet union. we're still thinking communisco.
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that's the real feel, iran could become a proxy state of the soviet union. the gulf, under the control of the soviet union. we never really take as seriously as we needed to the islamic presence. it was there. it was obvious. cia knew, national security council knew. it wasn't foremost in their minds. so what happens when those students come in and -- despite the fact they claim it was peaceful, a few of them at least had weapons. so something was off from the beginning about their so-called peaceful intent. and they do, though, at first seize the hostages in a sense thinking it might only be a day, two days, a few days. it's not exactly clear what's going to happen. and as time goes on and things don't get resolved, decisions are being made in all parts of the iranian government. one decision that's made is fascinating, is the iranians
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decide that because they're good islamic people, it's not right to keep women as hostages. this is inappropriate. so they give the women members of the delegation the right to leave. almost all of them do. there was a couple women left. that was an interesting political decision. who are their iranian revolutionaries? we're in solidarity with third world people all over the place. all the black members of the delegation, they're not our enemies. they're all free to go. several of the marine guards were african-american. so they're allowed to leave. not all take up this allowance. you suddenly go from 66 down to 53 at this point. so they're playing a political game. this is done in full view of the cameras. meanwhile, the iranian government is trying to decide what the heck is going on here, is this good, is this bad? there's factions within the government trying to resolve this. the ayatollah's faction, they see this as useful.
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these students are ones who say we're the students in line with the ayatollah. people are responding positive to this. not everyone, but a lot of iranians are like we're showing those americans what for. we're the ones who are a victim of america, now we're in control of america. this gave the ayatollah's faction a lot of credibility. a lot of legitimacy. and so, huh, maybe we shouldn't let them go. so suddenly you get stalemates. fairly quickly, black americans are given the permission to leave if they chose, women are given the permission to leave if they choose. the others, no. there's a side story to this, which is at the moment of takeover, a few american embassy personn personnel escape. six americans have escaped and run through the streets. that's a whole other story. there's hostages escaping, some
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who were released. but the others are sitting there blindfolded in squalor. at this point, not being tortured or anything like that, but by no means being housed comfortably as the days start to tick onward. so for the american government, it was a really hard set of decisions as to what's the leverage point, how do you fix this situation? jimmy carter as i said is a very methodical thinker in a good sense. he s he goes through every plausible situation. there's economic sanctions placed, those will play a vital role in donald trump's considerations many years later. we use the u.n., we use every possible ally we have. they're all on board. the u.n.'s on board, our nato allies are on board, our regional allies are on board. none of it works.
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all along the military has been planning for alternative scenarios. but, gosh, what is it? five months go on, yeah, five months go on before carter finally says, well, we've now ticked through every possible point of pressure and none of them are working. gentlemen, is there anything else we can do? and the pentagon steps up and says, yes, sir, we've been practicing, we have a plan. the plan is to take a few helicopters, fly them in, having already placed personnel -- some of this is still secret. we literally to this day don't know every detail. people have been placed securely near the embassy grounds to facilitate the release. but the idea was helicopters would fly in, come onto the embassy grounds, at this point they're called delta force, special operators would come in and free the hostages. the united states military has tremendous capacities.
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we didn't necessarily have tremendous capacities in 1980 o. this is 1980. to engineer this kind of clandestine special operator israelis had done something like it in the 1970s. we trained and learned from the israelis, but had never really done anything like this before as a military. it was really hard. operating desert conditions. enemies everywhere. no clear support system. there were a lot of reasons this wasn't going to go well. from the iranian perspective, it didn't go well by the will of al harks ah. the helicopters began flying in through tehran. they have fly low to escape supervision and surveillance and just terrible luck. a dust storm. sand storm blows up.
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and does a number on the mechanical components of the helicopters and all hell breaks loose. helicopters are grounded. they crash into each other. the operation doesn't even get to tehran. it just fails. and they die and so the one military operation that's tried is just a disaster and boy, does that hurt jimmy carter's chances for re-election. so the iranian hodge hostage crisis never resolves in an exdishs way. it goes on month after month after month so after a year, things are still terrible. but a new attempt had been made to bring in a kind of third party mediator. the algerian government. so the algerian government was not friendly to the united states. a revolutionary government in its own right but good
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international players, legitimate international players say we think we can help in this situation. and they're right. the iranian look at them as fellow revolutionaries. it's a predominantly islamic country and the algerians kind of go in there like good, like we sometimes think of switzerland. go in there and do a really good job. slowly working through the problems, negotiate iing issuesd it's the algerians who get a lot of credit for finally resolving this issue. the iranian play one last, hard joke on president carter. they're fed up the him. they were furious about the military rescue attempt. they refuse to allow the algerians to resolve the issue and to free the american hostages until l cater is out of office and rag b ben is sworn in so it's not until the inauguration of reagan, 444 days
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after the hostage taken, that finally those americans are let go and can come home. it's 1981 and reagan is the president of the united states. an interesting moment. you might think the reagan administration can look toward this new islam presence and growing presence in the region and say we've got a new threat, a new challenge. how are we going to revolve this issue? that's not where reagan's head is at. he's an old, cold war war r yor. he's focused on the soviet union. so islamist presence. the challenge it presents is basically put way deep in the background. we have a terrible relationship with iran. we don't resolve it during the reagan administration. we don't recognize their government. we keep as donald trump would tell us later, a huge hunk of their money hostage in their
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banks. we don't give it back to them and we just have a deteriorating back story relationship with iran. and of course the irony is is that the same time reagan sees an opportunity with a different group. a group we call al qaeda in afghanistan. because he's just a fierce anti communist warrior, he decided to side with the revolutionaries in afghanistan. provides them weapons, training, money. so rather than say islam presents an interesting challenge, we don't treat it seriously. we embrace it in afghanistan. because they're anti soviet. anticommunist. that didn't turn out so well. i believe there was a change in
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temperament. we had people who could speak arabic. but still didn't treat it as a central problem. so when 9/11 occurs in 2001, i think overwhelmingly for americans and even government elites, it was a shock. why has this happened to us? the kind of anger and disrespect that many people in the middle east had for people in the united states was misdirected to us. so while we had increased our capacities, we never took it as seriously as we might have. that growing kris in that part of the rld wo. so even know, 17 years later, ipg we're still trying to figure out who our friends and enemies are in the middle east and how do we keep the islamist challenge manabgeable and as recent events have shown, we're still struggling to find that answer in the right part of the
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world. it's the a challenge. poor carter understood back in 1979. >> all week, we're featuring american history tv programs of o what's b available. lectures in history. american artiing facts. real america. the civil war. and special event coverage. american history tv products are now available at the new cspan online store. go to to see what's new for american history tv and check out all of the cspan products. >> the house will be in order.
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>> for 40 years, cspan has been providing america unfiltered coverage of congress, the white house, the supreme court and public policy events from washington, d.c. and around the country so you can make up your own mind. created by cable in 1979. cspan has brought to you by your local cable or satellite provider. cspan. your unfiltered view of government. >> we're looking back to 1979 when iranian students seized the u.s. embassy in tehran and took 66 americans hostage. next, former u.s. foreign service officer john limber talks about his time as a hostage in iran including a mem b rabble visit from an iranian clergyman. this is from the association for diplomatic studies and training oral history collection.


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