tv Iran Hostage Crisis - 40 Years Later CSPAN December 24, 2019 11:13am-12:46pm EST
and i'm so excited that you all are taking it. >> there's still time to enter the cspan video cam competition. you have until january 20th to create a five to six minute documentary that explores an issue you want the presidential candidates to address in 2020. we're giving away $100,000 in cash prizes with a grand prize of $5,000. for more information, go to studentcam.org. >> from 1979 to 1981, 52 americans were held hostage in the u.s. em bassy in tehran. next, the wilson center hosts a panel discussing how the iran hostage crisis has impacting u.s. foreign policy since then. >> welcome to the wilson center. my name is christian osterman. i have the privilege to direct
the public policy program here at the center. thank you for joining us today for this panel discussion on the 40th anniversary of the iran hostage crisis. on november 4th, 1979, 52 american diplomats and citizens were taken hostage by a crowd of ukrainian studeniranian studentd the u.s. embassy in the wake of the iranian revolution in february of 1979. even though the crisis ended with the release of the hostages on january 20th, 1981, after an incredible ordeal that lasted some 440, some 444 days, it has had a lasting influence on the relationship between the two countries. images of students shoutinging anti-american slogans and tauntingly burning the american flag traumatized a nation and presidency. they live on in popular
consciousness here with such movies as the 2012 movie, argo and they continue to weigh on the public discourse. so here, today, we want to explore this lasting impact on the hostage crisis a bit further and we have convened a panel of distinguished experts which will be moderated by my colleague. very pleased that our expert, that the distinguished guest have accepted our invitation. today's event is being organized by the centers history and public policy program. it seeks to provide meaningful context to public policy issues and debate. as a b global lead er in uncovering and publicizing policy revant ar kooifl documentation but its archive easily access bable to all of you at digitalarchive.org. you can see the front page
there. the program works with the worldwide network to build next generation research capacity,er a dialogue on new historical sources and perspectives and to push for greater access and transparency. we have recently launched a new initiative on exploring and document iing the contemporary history of the middle east through local and regional sources and perspectives. some day, we hope to be able to analyze and discuss episodes such as the one we'll be focusing on today based on iranian and other archives in the region. we also say the center's middle east program has graciously agreed to cosponsor today's session. i want to thank the speakers and john limbbert, an eyewitness
to the hostage ordeal, agreed enthusiastically to be here and wanted to be here, had to cancel at the last moment for a health emergency. we are of course sending our best wishes to john for a speedy recovery. and grateful for my team for this event called faulkner and anna, two of our talented program interns and especially my colleague on the history program, ken burn, who took the lead in putting this event together and spearheads our middle east initiative. how i'll introduce our speakers, let me briefly introduce her, not that she needs an introduction. she's the founding director of the middle east program and now public policy fellow at the wilson center. in iran, she worked as a journalist, academic and on women's issues. she directed a complex of several museums and cultural
centers. before joining the wilson centers, she taught persian language at princeton. she's the author of reconstructed life and my prison my home, one woman's story of captivity in iran based on her own ordeal in iran on months of imprisonment in evan prison in 2007. let me also add that she's an amazing colleague and dear friend who we at the center have been fortunate to have around. she is a joy of this institution. she's a sought after expert on iran and i've learned a lot from her as a scholar, program manager and institution builder and as a moderator who bins grace with draconian disciplines and discipline i'm looking at our panelists so thank you for sharing this eventing hallie. the floor is yours. >> thank you, very much, christian.
it's an honor to be here with such a distinguished panel. i think all of us, some of us in the room remember november 4th, 1979. must confess when i saw the pictures of these students, climbing up the gate of their american embassy in tehran shortly after the heavy aleutiaaleutia revolution, i thought they have gone completely crazy. what a thing to do. i thought they'd go in and out and that would be it and i believe john limbbert in an interview, he gave recently, he said that he thought the students would just demonstrate so he volunteered to go up and
talk to them and so he walked out. they locked the darbooarbeoor b and the next thing he knows, he was blindfolded and taken by the student. his counterpart, you know not his counterpart, but the student who designed the whole plan gave an interview just a couple of days ago and he said he thought this would be a 48 hour affair and it would end and they would send a message to america and that was that. but it wasn't. as christian said, it lasted 444 days and and just one day, people of tehran heard that the
hostages were put in mini buses sent to the airport and left the country and freed. to make sense of all these happening happenings, we have a very distinguished panel. michael will go first. he will give us a historical background of what happened that day. the director at the national security archive, he's current ly and the historical events through multinational and
archival cooperation. he was the scholar and author of iran contra, reagan scandal and the unchecked abuse of presidential power. bruce rooyder is a senior feder and director of the brookings intelligence project and the senior fellow at the center of at least policy. he has served under the last four presidents to shape u.s. policies towards south asia and the middle east. he has a number of books. so bruce, i picked and choose to mention one. i was so intrigued by the title, i read the book.
it's fantastic. i recommend it. finally, susan maloney, the susan maloney, i always refer to her as because she's the top expert on iran. i think in the country, really. the deputy director at the inconstitutii institution and security and climate initiative. she has served on the secretary of state policy planning staff and directed the task force on u.s. policy towards iran at the council of foreign relation. she is the -- and request for a
new moderation. when i saw the word moderation, i thought wishful thinking. okay. let's start with you. >> well, i have some thanks and an apology. the thanks are to the organizers for including me. christian and kian and chuck and others and my apology is to all of you for not being john limbbert. i had a reminder of the effect this might have in the elevator when a person who's here in the room heard in the elevator me saying john was out because of surgery. she said john isn't going to be here? i hope you don't all feel that way, but obviously i can't fill his shoes, but i can provide as hallie has requested, some historical background on this really fascinating and important episo
episode. i'll do this in small lightening fast chunk. the historical background, approximate causes and just run through some f the dates of events that happened during this crisis. i also brought some documents. these may help illustrate some of what i'm going to talk about. aside from john, the person we most miss here is bill miller who played a big part in these events and was a strong supporter at the national security archive on iran. so with that, let me start with the historical background. really three main things that i want to mention. the first is that you have to go back to 1953 to understand the motivation. that's not as straightforward a proposition that you might
think. in the good old days, it was widely ak cement septembered that the ca and british were largely responsible for the coup against mohammed, but there have been some challenges to that thesis of late that basically positive that the cia had virtually nothing to do with the actual overthrow. this it was really iranian by themselves. i have some problems with that, but b i think you don't need to get into the specifics to recognize what is important for our purposes, that the iranian believe the united states was involved and in fact, there is clear evidence that i don't think anybody disputes that at least the u.s. had the intention to overthrow him. there's absolutely no question of that. and i have one item that has always been compel iling to me.
t it's a b cable from the u.s. ambassador in baghdad. on the 17th of august, the day after the shah fled iran, after the first aat the coup failed. the shah led to baghdad and asked to meet with the ambassador. ambassador writes, i found shah worn from three sleepless nights, but with no, repeat no, bitterness towards americans who had urge d and planned action. he never indicated that any foreigner had had a part in recent events. he agreed so that to me is fairly compelling. any way, the point is iranian have believed for you know, many, many years now that the u.s. was centrally involved and that was a big part of the motivation. the second event is the 25 year reign of the shah that followed his reinstatement by the u.s. and iranian forces.
this was period where all the damage was done. where the shah alienated the population. accrued greater and greater power to himself. became essentially a dictator. all of which the iranian came to resent more and more and many believed as we know that the u.s. was the hidden hand behind this. even though scholarship shows the relationship between the shah and u.s. was more complicated than that. the third event was the revolution itself and the period that followed after the departure of the shah in january '79 and the arrival of khomeini who would be the leading light of the ruepublic of iran. that was not something that could be readily predicted at
the beginning of the revolution. it was uncertain how events would unfold. iran was in a chaotic state. there was all kinds of strife. ethnic, political and otherwise. tribes, the kurds. left iist, fed there is ine, others were pushing and shoving and it was a very violent and unsettle d time. this played in as well to the thinking of people behind the hostage seizure who wanted to do something to advance their cause. the first is one that is not readily remembered and that was a resolution passed by congress in may of 1979. sponsored by jacob javits of new york which called iran to account for all the executions that were being perpetrated and
generally the terrible treatment that they were giving to certain of their citizens including jews. why was this important? because khomeini. he took great accek sepgs to th and railed against it not to mention this was a jewish senator that was leading the charge again as the united states was interfering in iran's internal affairs and he made a celeb out of this. charlie nass, who was at time, the acting dcm, at the embassy in tehran, said this basically spelled the end of any of his hopes for imt proouchlt of the situation and he left and replaced by bruce langan. much better known as a -- much
better known as the medical treatment in 1979 and bf that time, bruce langan was in a cable he wrote to washington in response to a query. this is in july. so a couple of months ahead of time. what would it mean if the u.s. had admitted the shah. he wrote, gives some background and says subject to this reservation, i conclude that for the shah to take up residence in u.s. in the immediate future by which i mean the next two or three months, would continue as before to be seriously prejudice to iran. this is how things work eed out and he was not alone in saying that. that virtually every iran expert in the state department warped of this, but a long about october 20th, the word came down from the white house.
a note from brzezinski president. called bz, big brzezinski, late saturday evening with approval. so the shah was going to be admitted and two days later, he did appear. that didn't paimmediately cause the takeover. it took a little while longer and then the final event that seemed to break the camel's back was the infamous meeting between brzezinski and the head of the provisional government in algiers. an event that langan ruefully acknowledged he urged. he suggesteded he meet with brzezinski because of ironically, the lack of high level contacts before that time between americans and iranian and langan and others thought this would be a really good idea.
i don't know that he really believed that brzezinski would be the one to meet with him. i think he thought david newsome might be the person more appropriate. a high level state department official. be that as it may, that event occurred. it was in, made headlines around the world and that appeared to be what set off the students following the line of the imam. those are the three proximate caused that i would draw attention to. i think i've got a couple more minutes then i'll go through as hallie requested earlier and give just a couple of the key dates that are good to keep many mipd. so november 4th is the day the students stormed the gates. they had been planning this for a couple of weeks. after apparently rejecting the idea of storm iing the soviet embassy, which none other than mohammed was behind. he lost out on that. one of the results we know was
that the great deal of highly classified material was captured. the agency officials and others tried to burn and shred materials. the materials they shredded, the iranian managed amazingly to reconstruct in many cases then sold them at a lit book stall at the gate of the embassy. irony upon ironys. these materials are incredibly fascinating and important for understanding all kinds of aspects of u.s. policy. never, just a day of two after this happens, carter authorizes two emissaries to go to iran to try to negotiate the hostages release. it's ramsey clark, an old friend of cy vance's and someone who is known to have associations with iranian dissidents and bill miller. who had been tapped to be eventually the ambassador replacing bill sullivan, but that never, never came about.
november 6th, the government collapses while clark miller mission is still heading to turkey. it's great story of how they tried to push their agenda no matter what. the carter administration immediately moves into action. the special koocoordination committee, a subset of the national security counsel starts to meet and we've got a lot of records that are declassified at the carter library. virtually every meeting of the sec is recorded there and it's a fascinating account of the evolution of thinking. including this december of 1979 report from brzezinski to the president where he offers his opinion about so-called difficult choices in iran.
he says at one point, we need to consider military actions relating to his downfall and release the hostages as a qu consequence of his downfall. i have set up a small tightly held group to see whether we can make this happen, et cetera. at the end of it, carter writes in his handwriting, he says we need to list everything he would in the want to see occur and which would not incite condemnation of u.s. by other nations. now this is a little extreme what brzezinski was proposing and in fact, it was a even more remark bable document that was available in the carter library. have not seen anything like this. it's from brzezinski to carter and it's entitled black room report. and my theory is that this small group, this small tightly held group he mentions is what this is. he starts off saying we've been examining the situation over the course of political developments. lists some thoughts and says are we prepared to accept a
commitment to destabilize the situation in iran and try to replace the present leadership. carter writes in the margin, not yet. carter made some handwritten notes at the end. he says be extremely cautious b about u.s. action for now. but assess options within cia. let them give me analysis of all elements. this is extreme. they were considering all kinds of things freezing assets. all kind of things were being considered. it's interesting that it was on the table.
as a symbol of iranian concern for these minority groups. in january 27th, a famous canadian caper happened, the b subject of the argo film and there are some documents about that that have been released by the cia. april 7, takes a few months, the u.s. finally breaks off relations with iran and just a little over two weeks later, mounts the doomed operation eagle claw, which ends in disaster. we have other things, the classifieded hol wii way report which examines that operation. this is one of the them.
the conclusion was that we needed to ramp up our special ops capcapabilities. july 27th, the shah dies in egypt, which is important here because it effectively removes one of the key because it removes one of the obstacles and january 19th, the algiers accords were signed, which freed the hostages to come home january 20th, the day reagan is inaugural rated. deliberate timing. that ends the crisis as we will hear. as you know, this was only the start of an incredibly bitter and prolonged period of relations between the u.s. and iran. thank you. >> thank you. >> great, thank you so much and
thank you especially to hallie for this opportunity. and incredibly generous introduction which i will interpret at taruf rather than actual description of my role here and in this field. i was one of the great sort of thrills. to go to an iranian studies conference but the greats of the field sitting in the audience and has had the same sense of thrill to be with people who have not just incredible scholarship on this issue, but also the benefit of firsthand experience during what i think was an incredibly critical juncture in the history of iran, the history of the region. increasingly ever more relevant
today this particular episode. i'm going to quickly make four big points. about the impact of the hostage crisis on iran. the first is i think many of you already are well aware is the roll of this moment of the seizure of the embassy and 444 day stand off that followed in consolidating the authority of the clerical elements of the revolutionary coalition. iran, in iran, among iranian, at least among those within the system, the hostage crisis is often described as a second revolution and i think if anything, it's an understatement and to fully appreciate this, especially because we're here among historians, i think it's important to recognize how the revolution transpired. the way it was perceived within iran as well as from a distance
here in washington. this was an unprecedented moment. uphooefl in the streets leading to an eviction of an impregnant able western highly securetized monarc monarchy. we've now of course lied through a variety of revolutions include ng the middle east but also in eastern europe, latin america and elsewhere that have been primarily driven by people on the streets, but in 1978 and 1979 as these were transpiring, including those who work part and parcel that led to this outcome. to say that it was primarily kohmeini, the revolution on the streets which was highly orchestrated. it was he who was high ly
determined from the yut set to make this a revolution rather than a project to reign in or impose reforms on the monarchy and it was he who drove that train as argan once described it. he was not the driver of the train, but khomeini was. there was so much political, there was so much conflict and competition within the revolutionary coalition. there was such a wide variety of idea logical perspectives. there was no clear end state for this effort. than convicting the shah and really no consensus about what was intended to follow the mo monarchy. so the return on february 1st after the shah has left the country leads to this question of what will happen.
there's about a two week or ten-day period celebrated in iran today as the ten days of dawn in which there's this uncertainty about whether the reform oriented minister had left would survive and whether he would as everyone in washington anticipate d and primarily acquit himself in some respects, as we've seen him in iraq. as someone who is highly influential, but not someone involved in the day-to-day affairs in government. that from the start i would argue was never going to be the case. but it was not clear to anyone in washington nor to anyone in iran. he authorized the establishment of a provisional government. messi who was not a cleric, but was the leader of the iran freedom movement. an organization that was highly
influenced by religious preferences, but in a sense, was also very much an heir the pro democracy republican orientation of the national front and the era pressed for more accountable government. he reestablished the institutions of the state but throughout this period between february and august, there's a competition for authority and the establishment or perpetuation of the revolutionary organs that had been set up to coordinate on the streets against the shah and over time, it becomes clear that those organs in fact are really running the affairs of government in iran. and so this competition came to a head with the seizure of the embassy pause at the moment
turned to the provisional government seize d on the u.s. embassy look for help. what they found was this provisional government wasn't in charge. this in my ways, only crystallize d, formalized what had become true over this period. that it was the revolutionary counsel that was making the decisions on the affairs of state. that the provisional government didn't and wasn't ever going to have full control over what was to be the future of the iranian government. by forcing the provisional government and his ministers to resign from their posts, this moment, the seizure of the minist
minister, the draft institution away from a truly representative government towards something that create d and as we now hav seen for 40 years, the office of the se prum heeder and leader. in terms of this moment, the way it played out in iran, i think what's important is that it amplified the sense of siege felt by iranian as malcolm suggested this was a time of tremendous tum ultimault in ira. it wasn't a one day affair then it was over. certainly those of us sitting in washington and watch these things and assume that once the former government leads and a new government is established
that the revolution is done that was not the case for iranian. there were fights going on even on a neighborhood wii neighborhood basis as this went on. this includes marks, religious extremists including those who sought to create a more democratic representative government in iran and many others. really jockeyed for power. so you have the sebs sense of tumult, the sense of uncertainty then to have what was seen as the most powerful government in the world taken over by young students. and hope tog see different outcome. if you read the different commentaries of the students, they're of course now even more than me, middle-aged and have
had many more opportunities to look back on this episode. they do express what malcolm suggested. there was a deep concern that there was a plot from the united states to reinstate the shah. they were watching closely of course. the contacts between the american government and elements o f the provisional government and rather than seeing this as a reassuring gesture, which is what was intended from those here in washington trying to find a way to preserve a relationship, they didn't want it preserved so they were determined to find a way to create a full and permanent breach between iran and the united states to ensure that the revolution couldn't be disrupt ed to ensure that it's intent couldn't be subverted by the match nations machinations of a imperialists. so this was very much what they had in mind.
there's an interesting sort of historical debate going on now. there's a wonderful book by mohammed tab arar of texas mamz this period. there are a couple of other books forthcoming and there are some indications that in fact h advanced warning of the episode. the standard interpretation. he was unaware but he made the most of the moment. we know that khomeini over the rest of his time as leader of the islamic republic was highly opportunityistic. but there is some suggestion that he had advanced warning and was able to take advantage of this in the way that he did to press for not just the removal of the vestiges of secular authority. but also to use this in a way to cement the -- kind of the ideological fervor of the population. because in his remarks about when he actually announced that
in fact this would be -- that this was approved by the leadership he described this very much as his decision on the basis of the overwhelming popularity of this act among the iranian masses so what that did effectively if not criminalize at least deter dissent from the decision because he's described this as something that he's embraced and the masses have embraced. if you're a political leader, whether a marxist or a democrat or someone from another perspective if you seek to press back on that then you're speaking out against those who both from the leadership and from the population. so it became very difficult to oppose the decision at least from the outset from within. and it enabled khomeini to marginalize not those in power, but also other contenders for
ideological authority most notably the senior ayatollah who descended from the idealology of the islamic republic. the hostage -- the hostage crisis also transformed iran's place in the world. it created this breach between the united states and iran. it also created the sense that iran, this conviction that iran was prepared to take extreme measures to embrace unconventional foreign policy in order to advance its interests in the world and of course this also coincided with the development of institutions within iran that were intended to foment subversion among all of the neighbors and tried to export the revolution. for khomeini and for many of those within iran this reinforced the episode itself --
the episode reenforced that the united states is on its last legs. america cannot do a damn thing was the phrase that was painted on the walls in front of the embassy. i believe they were cleaned and repainted. apparently in preparation for not just the annual commemoration which will take place over the next few days in tehran but also for a new movie that the iranians are producing. this really did demonstrate that iran was not going to be a compliant proxy. as one of the new leaders said. for the americans of course what this did was to reinforce we are a more limited power than we have perceived and at the time that this was all transpiring under the carter presidency, that here are americans whose lives are not in danger and khomeini said there's not a damn
thing we can do about it. a couple of final points. this is a fascinating, important episode to study if you want to understand the trajectory of american policies, the impact on iran. the very first thing that happened when the special coordinating committee was established was a decision to use both pressure and persuasion or would later be described, carrot and stick, to try to influence iran. but in part the concerns about carter's fears of moving too fast or too far. the use of economic sanctions was first deployed against iran in early november, 1979, and it was deployed in probably one of the most effective periods up until the nuclear crisis because the seizure of iran's assets in the u.s. banks and not just in u.s. banks here but u.s. banks
abroad really did create constraints for the iranian government. it had a massive impact and a formative impact on iran's economy. what it meant was that the economy turned inward. that iran sought not to engage abroad but to rely on the own capabilities and that is something we hear in the day and the theme in the resistance economy and the idea that sanctions can in fact be a blessing. the negotiations if you want to think about how the nuclear crisis or the situation that we're in today with the iran might lead itself to some better conclusion, it's important -- i think it's very useful to study the negotiations that took place over the 444 days, the interlocutors both from the united states and from a variety of fascinating international characters. the essential role of the algerians in the final stages and the mediator. but also the perpetuation of the
crisis beyond the useful life. the iranian parliament set conditions for the end of september of 1990 and the shah was dead and there was a clear understanding with the invasion from iraq that iran needed this crisis to be over still. it took another four months before the hostages were released and iran's assets were also released on the same day. let me just close with a thought or two about the understanding of this episode today. what this did and i was young, i'm old enough to remember it. i was not old enough to have lived through it in a personal way. but it was -- it really personalized this crisis for americans in a way that i think has had lasting impact. every american understood that this was a siege, it was on the daily television. it birthed the idea of a nightly
news talk show which eventually became "night line." it personalized it in a way for the carter presidency which in many respects was -- this was a crucial episode in understanding how carter's presidency went into failure. but also in terms of the end of the monarchy in iran. there is a quote that i have preserved from the leader of panama which is one of the places that the shah eventually when he went into his flying dutchman mode was forced to travel in his final dying days and the leader of panama commented that imagine that, 2500 years of persian empire reduced to ten people and two dogs. it's easy to i think find this humorous today, but i think that the kind of humiliation that this episode represented for all of those who had invested themselves in not the kind of
glory of the shah but the hope that the monarchy could bring about a better life for iranians for all of those who invested themselves in the hope that the revolution would bring about a better life for the iranians this had a direct and personal consequences for all those involved. i think in that respect it's important to reflect back on and also to consider how we move forward with iran today. thanks. >> thank you very much. bruce? >> okay. thank you very much. thank you for inviting me. i'm delighted to be here with my two colleagues and friends. let me begin where suzanne ended with a personal note. in october of 1978, i was a quite young analyst at the central intelligence agency and i was re-assigned on very short
notice from the syrian desk to the iran the desk. the two analysts who had been on the desk were taken out to the helicopter pad and were execu executed. no, that didn't happen. we're not that black deep state. i was on the account through the end of the hostage crisis so i have very strong feelings about it. this was a critical turning point in u.s. views. especially towards iran but i would say even more broadly towards islam in general and the middle east in general as well. iran became the boogie man of american foreign policy and i would argue remains the boogie man of american foreign policy 40 years over. it became a dominant issue in american politics. few foreign policy issues resonate in the american domestic electoral calendars. iran is one of the few issues that's resonated more than once
and certainly resonated very, very powerfully in the 1980 election. demonization of iran became easy. first of all, the iranians did a lot of things that were wrong. like keeping american diplomats hostage for 444 days was a clear violation of the international rules of behavior. but the crisis and the atmosphere in the politics surrounding it and the incessant reporting on television every night what was going on only reinforced all of that. it also had an important impact on the office of the american presidency. and the office of the american presidency was diminished in many ways and two american presidents saw their legacy damaged by the hostage crisis and the little hostage crisis that followed it for the next
decade. malcolm was right to start with us with thinking about the revolution. it was completely unprecedented there was like it. analyzing it in the fall of 1978. things were happening that no one had predicted were going to happen. within the united states though i think there was more ambivalence about the revolution than we think in retrospect. the shah was not a particularly popular character in the united states. any of the americans who actually followed the 1973 oil embargo knew that it was the shah not the saudis who pushed for quadrupling oil prices. his image was very strong and positive among foreign policy elites, less so among others. but the number one american reaction i think to the revolution in 1978 was a sense of mystery. who are these people?
what is an ayatollah, what does an ayatollah do? the religious holiday of assurea and people flag you lating themselves and it was eye opening. americans had never seen anything like this. this all increased the sense of drama and attention that was being focused on iran. the hostage taking created wave of -- iran was an evil force. there was anger and frustration vented against the iranians. it is important to remember that the hostage crisis took place at a time when not only were the american hostages taken but we
had several other very significant events. the siege of mecca, the attack on the american embassy on islamabad which added to the sense that this was an epical event. very important event. much of the frustration focused on the president, james carter. it's deeply ironic because we now know from hamilton jordan's memoirs and others that jimmy carter from the beginning expected that the embassy was going to be taken over if the shah was brought into the united states and as he was pressed by the advisers and by outsiders like henry kissinger and the rockefellers to let the shah come in, he kept asking, when they take the embassy what options do i have and the answer they came back at him, you don't have any good options. the iranians were right. that's the significant point of this, the slogan on the wall there isn't anything you can do about it is very much correct. it was a inference of the
impotence of the united states of america, because the bar for success that carter saged and that every american expected would be staged was that the hostages be brought home all of them alive and well. that we weren't going to lose any hostages in the process. if that's the bar you set, then you needed to persuade the iranians to hand them over. and as suzanne has pointed out, we went into a carrots and sticks phase. the problem was the carrots we had weren't very good. and the sticks we had took a long time to become operational. diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, things like that will work. but might take 444 day, might have taken longer. we were really prisoners of the political process that suzanne described going on in iran.
and we had very, very little impact on that process and in fact we had only i would say some insight into what was going on. we didn't understand that process any more than many iranians understood what that process was going on. carter in short found himself in the position where the american people were clamoring for action and there was very, very little action he could take. it's also important to remember in retrospect that the cold war hung over all of this. and that every conversation about american options in iran always came back to a russian angle. so for example, if you wanted to talk about destabilizing the regime the american question would come up, well, who can benefit from that? and here the paranoid fear of the communist party in iran was always on the table.
in the 1980s americans didn't understand what an ayatollah was, but they understood what a communist was and understood that the russians would support a communist party and there were disturbing reports about the soviets practicing an invasion of iran. of course, that came in the wake of the soviet invasion of afghanistan in 1979 so no one would dismiss the possibility that the soviets were considering an invasion of iran. at the cia our job is not to recommend proposals but our job is as malcolm's documents laid out to analyze the pros and cons of all options. and the cons were obvious on all of them and frankly overwhelming. as a consequence, jimmy carter became perceived to be
irrelevant. incapable. help he did carry out the hostage rescue mission of course that only underscored it. the hostage situation never had a chance in 1,000 of succeeding. in fact, in many ways it was better that it failed at desert one that if it had catastrophically failed in downtown tehran but it showed the desperation of the united states government. that it was willing to embark upon such a high risk, low probability of success mission in order get the hostages out. one of the other consequences of course of the hostage crisis was the iran/iraq war. the longest and bloodiest conventional war since the korean war. saddam hussein rightfully concluded in the summer of 1980 that the united states wouldn't
stop an iraqi invasion and that the united nations wouldn't condemn it and he was right. here was a clear breach of international agreements. a country invading, crossing the border and invading and seizing from another and the united nations didn't even meet to discuss it for several weeks afterwards. this of course leads in the long run to the u.s. tilting towards iraq and the u.s. iran undeclared naval war in 1988. for iranians all of this indicated that the united states was indeed the enemy and it became just as easy to demonize america in iran as it was to demonize iran in the united states. despite his obsession with iran, i think it should be noted that jimmy carter did continue to pursue quite vigorous foreign policies in other areas, the one i would highlight for a minute
was the response to the soviet invasion of afghanistan. the public response the carter doctrine was the first statement that the persian gulf in particular was a vital national interest of the united states and the united states would use force in order to protect it. it also led to the creation of what we now call centcom. behind the scenes, jimmy carter very, very quickly and really as a matter of a week or so put together the alliance of the united states/saudi arabia and pakistan that would support the mew hajj adean. china, egypt, the united kingdom as a sort of advisers with boots on the ground inside afghanistan. something no american did during the war. but all of this was behind the scenes, all of it was covert and
jimmy carter got very, very little credit for it. he couldn't write about it in the memoirs because it was still a classified project when he wrote his memoirs. the reagan administration inherited this policy and for first year did virtually nothing, first term did virtually nothing to it. it's only in the second term of the reagan administration that the policies were ramped up. reagan knew he owed his electoral victory in november of 1980 to the unpopularity of jimmy carter. and he had exploited that. they had deliberately put out the image that they had a plan, that they were going to do something drastic. once the reagan team was elected, we immediately at the cia got access to them and of course we were about to get his campaign adviser bill casey as
our new director. i can tell you having seen all of the documents that they prepared leading up to inauguration date they didn't have a plan either. there was nothing in the works that was going to dramatically change the situation so i think that ronald reagan thanked his lucky stars on the day he came in, carter got to fly to frankfurt and welcome the hostages home. but he then suffered from his own slow burning. much smaller, much less dramatic in many ways. but nonetheless, very real hostage crisis after the israeli invasion of lebanon. and iran's arm hezbollah began taking hostages. i can tell you that in the mid 1980s, i was working on the syria lebanon desk again. every day we got requests from reagan and casey, what does this mean for the hostages? what does that mean for the hostages?
in many cases the answer was absolutely nothing, but it was an indication of their obsession with the hostages. that obsession of course led them in the end to turn to the policy of arms for hostages. a brilliant idea given to them by the israelis. it turned out to be a disastrous end as malcolm has written in his really excellent book, almost led to the impeachment of ronald reagan. in retrospect, the american people have kind of whitewashed the whole arms for hostages thing. we kind of put reagan in a special place in american memory, but if not for that, his legacy in many ways would have been as tarnished as carter by iran and hostages. looking ahead, there's no likelihood that i can see on the horizon of the stain of the hostage crisis being removed from u.s./iranian relations
since it's headed in a perilous way. they're more likely to be brought home to americans and reminded of the hostages rather than placed into a different kind of perspective. >> thank you. thank you, bruce. let me just put a question to the three of you. generation in iran -- i'm not talking about tehran, those who were 20 when the hostage crisis started are now 60, okay. so they have gone through the war, they have gone through all of the american sanctions, so on. and you don't hear from them even the history of the hostage crisis. you have a generation that was not even born when the hostage crisis started.
so they are now in their 40s and then the ones who have been born afterward. so for them, this is not an issue. what does it take for the united states to not to forget or to forgive this or not make it an issue and to have a kind of rapprochement between the two countries? susan, let's start with you. >> you know, i think that it is a -- it's a very difficult question to answer. >> that was the purpose. >> you ask the toughest questions. i tend not to believe that u.s. policy today is directly motivated by this sense of resentment or even by the demonization of iran that has
come fairly consistently over the course of the past 40 years. sometimes with legitimate provocation and sometimes because iran is a convenient punching bag that the american people are familiar with. i don't see the question of the hostage crisis itself looming quite so large in the imaginations of current american policymakers. except insofar as it is related to what is seen i think as a fairly consistent threat of iranian policy. this readiness to take any means necessary. this capacity to target individuals as you personally have experienced, to try to pursue the aims of the state or simply because there is an unwillingness or an inability to get control of some of the elements of the system that have
thuggish authority and to actually impose order on that system itself. and so i think that's the importance of the hostage crisis today for american policymakers. this sense that iran doesn't consider itself to be bound by diplomatic protocol or international law, that it will abuse individuals, that it will target american service men in iraq. simply to pursue aims of disruption rather than constructive advancement of its own national interests. and i think until and unless you actually see iran begin to shed some of those types of policies, and take responsibility for them. one of the things that struck me and continues to strike me is that, you know, iran will
celebrate and commemorate the anniversary of the embassy seizure, flags be burned. but for iranians this really is dusty old history. it's sort of a bad thing that happened but it was a bad thing after a lot of bad american things so why is it even significant. i think there isn't a full appreciation from at least younger iranians that it was a breach in the way -- a breach in the community of nations, the way that we conduct our diplomacy. the inviolability of diplomatic personnel when representing their countries. so i think that there have been these moments, these opportunities for personal meetings. john limbert himself has participated i think with some of those from iran who are
involved with the embassy seizure and i think there has been some stock taking. but even the regret that was expressed by former president -- it was an injustice, but it was a culmination of american injustices and i think that there will be some need for accountability or at least for an appreciation of the consequences and that's one of the things i'll read one other quote and then i'll stop. but richard moorfield reports himself as having said to the spokesperson for the hostages that, you know, as he was about to be released you were the first social revolution in history that didn't have to compromise from the very first moment you had resources, you had money. when you took over you had all
the money you needed to make anything you wanted to make, anything was possible and you threw it all away as a result of this episode. i think that that recognition isn't -- i haven't seen that from iranians at least not expressed publicly. >> bruce? >> i think your question illustrates one of the great paradoxes of american policy about iran. iran has been identified as our regional foe and have called for isolation, called for economic sanctions to greater or lesser extent. at the same time, i would say every american president with the possible exception of "w" -- george w. bush has also secretly longed to be the man who reopened the relationship with iran. that that is the surest path to
a nobel peace prize you can ever imagine. it was certainly true of reagan. that was the whole ridiculousness of the cake and everything was to reopen that relationship and in addition to getting the hostages out. it was certainly george h.w. bush with the whole policy of you know extended hand, we will -- all that rhetoric. which was undermined by the second smaller hostage crisis. but nonetheless, very real. it was certainly bill clinton's policy. we ran around the general assembly in 19 -- the end of 1999 or 2000 desperately hoping to have cat amy and bill clinton bump into each other. it was considered to dump coffee on him to consider that
opportunity. thank god we didn't do that. "w" was probably in the best case to make the rapprochement and thought about it briefly before of course his axis of evil speech. i think it's safe to say that obama saw this as his path to the nobel peace prize. of course he got the nobel peace prize before -- almost before he was inaugurated. he didn't need it, but he still pursued it. i think that jcpoa would be regarded by president obama as not just iran nuclear deal, but as the steppingstone a much broader rapprochement even though the administration said no, judge it on its merits. and our current president despite his rhetoric about getting tough on iran also to me
shows a fascination of a photo-op and hopeful that will gain him stature. i think the iranians have drawn the line at a photo-op. they might be willing to do a lot of other things but the photo-op is the last thing they're likely to do. it's a paradox. the american -- what it says to me is that american political leaders would be open to finding a way out but it's a perilous trip. there are a lot of problems, a lot of impediments on the way here. one of them is what suzanne referred to is some measure of accountability. it's not just the kind of half hearted maybe it wasn't the smartest thing in the world to do apology, but some kind of more serious thing than that. that's very hard for me to see any iranian government being
able to do. >> so bruce is stealing my lines but he puts them much better so that's fine. i totally agree with his comment that the hostage crisis first of all made it easy for the united states to stop worrying about who iran was and how to deal with it. it was an instant solution. they're crazy and they're barbaric, irrational. what can we do about that? i think that's gotten in the way. if we can get out of that narrative that would help a lot. and every leader reaching out to iran, maybe not for a full rapprochement but each leader on both sides since the revolution it seems to me has had a reason, an expressed reason to try to reach out to the other side. so we have got the american side, but if you look at the iranian side, even khomeini
agreed to the arms for hols hostages deal. rafsanjani tried even into the 1990s and ambassador to bonn tried to create the environment for improved relations with the west in general. even khomeini agreed to the steps even though he regularly spouts the opposite idea. and of course -- well, even ahmadinejad with his letters to american presidents. so there's been a string of attempts to reach out and what's required for something -- an improvement to take place is the discovery of mutual need. satisfying mutual needs. they don't have to be the same needs. the iranians and the americans
had different ideas of what they could get out of iran/contra. the jcpoa as an example of perceived needs being met by this interaction. so if that can occur and if the environment is in place where the stakes for failure are not so high and they're always higher in iran than in the united states, but if that kind of conducive environment can come about, then i think there are possibilities. >> we're opening the floor to your questions. yes, the gentleman in the back. can you -- here. >> i have a question for mr. byrne. do you consider the film "argo" to be accurate? >> the countries involved are accurate. [ laughter ] dates are accurate. the political implications are representations in the film.
>> oh, i mean, there's a lot that they took -- a lot of leeway on. no question. >> it's fiction. it's fiction? well, what is the message of "argo?" >> oh, boy. >> was it that the u.s. was involved in -- >> yes. there is that controversy. i don't want to get too deep into the critique of a hollywood production, but there -- i know there has been some dispute over who was involved there. the same thing that comes one 1953 with every one of these issues. who takes credit, who takes blame. there are in fact documents that show that contrary to the claims of some canadians that in fact they did have a fair amount to do with it. this notion of creating this fake production company and using that as an excuse to go
into iran. it is something that shows up in the declassified documents. >> mr. reidel? >> i'm sorry. we'll go around and get back to you again. next question. yes, please. >> i'd be curious as to the thinking of the mek and going back to the hostage crisis and the students who participated in that crisis and then how the crisis was used to consolidate power and the islamic marxists essentially partnering with the religious types to bring down the shah. has there been much study of the mek today? you know, we have the current john bolton and, you know, other people have supported the mek or taken money from them.
is there -- can you connect the mek with having lost out in the competition for control of that after the bizarre government, did the mek helped to bring down the bizarre gun government and then lose out to the religious types? >> suzanne? >> sure. you know, i think it's fair to look at the end of -- or to look at the start of the hostage crisis as the end of the moment in which the nationalists within the revolutionary coalition had conceivable path forward. if not even a prospect of some ascendancy within the coalition and that -- by forcing them out, the primary cleavage within the
revolutionary was between the islamists and the khomeini version of the islamist government and the other mek and marxists who were part of the coalition. there were of course those from the tuda, a variety of different groups that are involved. so it's important not to isolate particular organizations per se. and then of course the full reckoning between the islamists and the mujahideen doesn't come until the end of the government and then being -- and then being forced into exile and the violence that then followed. again, this is an element of the iranian revolutionary story that we tend to gloss over because of historical distance and the distance here in washington and
the degree of violence, including the terrorist attacks against the parliament and the assassination of the president. this is of course not ancient history the current leadership of the islamic republic, the leader lost his hand and ahmadinejad was targeted, shot at. this degree to which the competition for power during the first several years of the islamic republic was really a full-fledged civil war within the political establishment and where full control was not re-established immediately. the role of the mujahideen since it moved into exile in 1981, aligned itself for at least the first 20 years with saddam hussein and fought on behalf of saddam hussein during the iran
iraq war, whatever the mujahideen might have been in 19 -- in the 1970s in the early days after the revolution and what it is today i think are to some extent very different. that's not a -- that's not to suggest that either mujahideen in the '70s are the mujahideen today is a positive force. but it had become increasingly cult like. it clearly benefits from outside support from governments which i can't really informatively speculate upon. it has no real resonance among ordinary iranians today. and so it is -- it is a strange cult-like front for the interests of foreign powers. it's a travesty that american politicians from both sides of the political aisle have had
used it as a cash cow for their own personal advancement. >> thank you. yes? can you wait for the -- >> larry altman, wilson center. what could carter have done to avoid admitting the shah to the u.s. when he did? and if he hadn't admitted him, what do you think might have happened? >> i'm sure there were hospitals in places that could have treated him just as well as in the united states. so it wasn't a question of medical care. it was much more a question of somehow re-establishing america's honor which i find a very dubious proposition. those politicians who pressured jimmy carter in to taking the
shah did their country a great disservice. and one that they should have understood at the time as a great disservice. carter could have done one other thing and probably should have done which is if once he made the decision that he was going to let the shah come in to have evacuated and shut down the embassy completely. if he as we now know from both his statements and the memoirs of his staff believe that they were at risk, then it was a major mistake to leave them there. it wouldn't have been any real substantial damage to american/iranian relations at that point since our access to the government in tehran was quite limited. special emissaries could have gone if we needed to do that. what was your second part of your question? >> if carter had not -- if t the -- if carter had not
admitted the shah, what do you think the events might have been? >> good question. i think american/iranian relations were headed towards the black hole sooner or later. khomeini as suzanne has pointed out was determined to take charge of the train and bring about the kind of regime that he wanted. and that was almost certainly going to lead to problems with us. but it's conceivable it could have gone in other ways. remember back in 1979 even for many years afterwards one of the leading proponents of rapprochement was the government of israel which i have faith in retrospect that staggers belief. you wouldn't have had that problem of the third party in
this relationship wanting to throw the train off course. i do have to go back to the argo question for one minute. there is one part of the argo movie that is totally false and that's the last scene. there was no chase. that was the beauty of the whole operation. i'm sure it was heart pounding terrorizing to walk into that airport and get the tickets and get on the airplane. i can't imagine a more scary environment than that. but the truth was that they sailed through the airport. it was as easy as could be. because they had done such a good job of covering their traces and covering that they were bringing the people out and because the canadians had been so forthcoming in providing all the paperwork that you needed. that really is one of the most important days in u.s./canadian relations. >> yeah, i agree. i didn't want to leave the impression that the canadians
didn't do anything. they were certainly heroic i think in that. but in answer to the question about the shah just two points. one was that in retrospect, a number of officials believed that timing was really key in the question of admitting him and that if he had come straightaway in january, it might have made all the difference. because the issue hadn't bubbled up the way that it would in subsequent months. instead, he chose to go to egypt, he close to morocco, et cetera. another point raised in later years looking back was that there was a debate inside at least amongst state department officials about what to do with the embassy as bruce was talking about. should they cut back on personnel there. and another dog reference was attributed to bill sullivan, the ambassador who said that we
should cut it down to three men and a dog. and a mad dog at that. and that's it. so there was a debate about what to do. >> this is the last question. to you in a different way. the hostage crisis happened -- the hostage taking happened on the 4th of november. if on the 5th or 6th of november carter would have sent a private message to ayatollah khomeini that either you let our people out or we are going to bomb you, what was the reaction of the iranian? what do you think -- put yourself in that framework of november '79. you know, not iran as it is today. what do you think, suzanne?
let's start with you. then we'll go down the line. >> you know -- again, you ask the toughest questions. i don't know. i think if there had been a decisive response from the united states before the crisis took on a life of its own and before it had become clear to khomeini and others that it had a real political utility for them in terms of consolidating their authority, there might have been -- you know, we can speculate that iran when faced with overwhelming force might have sought to preserve its gains and avoid massive destruction. i do think, you know, the question itself gets to the dilemma that bruce and malcolm described, this debate within
the administration which was in many ways a legacy of the debate that had been going on since the crisis since the revolution began to be -- to get under way in iran. what should we do about this? and brzezinski always favoring a tougher approach in different points of time, looking to subvert the revolution and then looking for ways to try to push back forcefully. others in the administration concerned about the use of american power and the implications for american's interest before the revolution, concerned about the fate and life of the hostages. and so you have, you know, one of the important aspects of this whole period i think is the lack of consensus at the very top of the american bureaucracy on how to handle the problem of iran. and here we are 40 years later i think we still have a lack of consensus. >> bruce? >> i'm going to give a point in
favor of your argument and then violent agree with suzanne. the point in favor is that in the summer of 1989 i think in august there was a lot of talk in iran including very senior levels about putting the hostages on trial. and jimmy carter at the time sent a message to the iranians, not in public but clandestinely, saying if any hostages were put on trial the u.s. would use military force. no hostages were put on trial and of course there was an iraqi invasion of iran which was suddenly a lot more important in priority to tehran than the question of show trials that said, i think suzanne has it completely right. there was no consensus in the carter administration in the first 48 hours or even first i would say two weeks about what to do.
there were very strong differences of opinion. in the first 48 hours i think it's also worth remembering there was a widespread assumption that the hostages will be released. we're going through a theater. you're going to be held for a little while. there will be a lot of stone throwing and then they're going to be released because that's what any responsible government would do. why would any government want to first of all violate the geneva conventions and secondly put us down the track towards a potentially very dangerous situation that could lead to war. and the last thing i would say, it would be interesting to check i seriously doubt that we had the capability in theater in 1979 to respond with a significant military attack on iran. it would have taken a considerable amount of time. remember in those days we didn't have bases. we had the one ship in bahrain that was our forward deployed and it wasn't even much of a
combat ship. >> i totally agree. this is what prompted the sgr d sgrild -- build-up in centcom and those kind of things and there was a more powerful force at work that would have prevented this from bubbling to the surface which is the u.s. bureaucracy. when you talk to people who were involved in setting up the clark miller mission, they will remind you that carter did send a message with them, a handwritten note to the ayatollah. asking him basically to resolve the crisis, but according to a couple of those folks it had been so watered down by the time it went through the process and their whole outlook as one person said sort of tongue in cheek was their whole mission was to defend themselves or create circumstances where there would be a minimum amount of embarrassment when a letter of
that sort would leak to "the new york times." it was assumed these things would leak. so there was no real chance. i know you're not being realistic about this. but i just think there was no real reality there. no real chance that anything like that would reach a decision point. >> thank you. thank you very much. let's give a hand. thank you for coming. all week we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span 3. lectures in history. american artifacts. real america. the civil war. oral histories. the presidency. and special event coverage about the nation's history. enjoy american history tv now and every weekend on c-span3.
american history tv products are now available at the new c-span online store. go to c-span store.org to see what's new for american history tv and check out all of the c-span products. ♪ the house will be in order. >> for 40 years c-span 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. c-span is brought to you your local cable or satellite provider. c-span, your unfiltered view of government. on november 4, 1979, iranian protesters stormed the u.s. embassy in tehran and took 66
americans hostage. up next, we look back 40 years to talk about the iran hostage crisis with former foreign service officer john limbert who was hold for 444 days and stuart eizenstat who worked in the carter administration during the crisis. john limbert is author of "negotiating with iran: wrestling the ghosts of history." stuart eizenstat is author of "president carter: the white house years." this is 90 minutes. >> it was 40 years ago this week that 52 americans were taken hostage in tehran at the u.s. embassy. marking the final year of the carter presidency an issue that consumed the president carter and reshaped the foreign policy. for the next hour and a half, we look back at the events as they infolded on november the 4th, 1979. and from a canadian documentary this look at how it all happened 40 years ago.