JIMMY CARTER has called Nov. 4 “a date I will never forget.” Other Americans may not remember the date, but as a nation we are still captive to the humiliating trauma that began unfolding precisely 35 years ago during Carter’s presidency. At 10:30 on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979, several hundred young Iranians climbed the walls of the American embassy in Tehran and stormed inside. By early afternoon, they had captured, blindfolded, and handcuffed dozens of American citizens and diplomats, including 52 who would remain in their hands for 444 days. Thus began a crisis that may now be seen as one of the crucial events in the modern history of both the United States and the Middle East.
Plenty has happened in the intervening decades to give Iran and the United States reason to mistrust each other. Each country has blamed the other for fomenting terror in the Middle East, and each has violently attacked the other’s vital interests. Yet when I recently asked one lifelong Washington insider to explain why the American political class remains so obsessed with isolating and punishing Iran, he immediately replied, “It all goes back to the hostage crisis.” The emotional legacy of that episode has proven astonishingly long-lasting.
Because the invasion of our embassy violated every law of God and man, it naturally outraged Americans. The most deplorable aspect of this crime was that it seemed to have been committed for no reason other than nihilistic hatred. This, coupled with searing images of helpless hostages, shaped the image of Iranians that many American politicians still cherish: hateful terrorists permanently outside the rational world order.
Years later, several of the hostage-takers wrote accounts that make clear how completely we misunderstood their motive. It turns out that they did not seize the embassy out of fanatic passion, but for a clear and rational reason. The deposed shah of Iran had just been admitted to the United States for medical treatment, and Iranians feared that this was the beginning of a CIA plot to re-install him on his Peacock Throne. This was hardly far-fetched, since the CIA had done it before. The shah had been forced to flee in 1953, but CIA officers working in the basement of the US embassy organized a coup and brought him back. That consigned Iran to a quarter-century of royal dictatorship.
Few Americans had any idea that Iranian democracy had been crushed in 1953. Even fewer knew that the United States was mainly responsible for the operation. These truths have dribbled out slowly, and have not penetrated our national consciousness.
Carter decided to admit the shah under heavy pressure from three of the shah’s most powerful American allies: David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, and John McCloy. He rejected pleas from American diplomats in Tehran, who sent him a cable warning that admitting the shah “would almost certainly meet with immediate and violent reaction.” When those diplomats were told that their appeal had been ignored, one of them later recalled, “faces literally went white.” Eerily, Carter himself seemed to have some idea of what might lie ahead. At one White House meeting, he rhetorically asked his aides, “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?”
One lesson of this crisis is that presidents should listen to their diplomats, not to self-interested outsiders. The more important one is that powerful images can hold entire nations captive for long periods. The humiliating theater of hostage-taking, stretched out over more than 14 months, aroused American emotions so intensely that they have still not calmed down. We readily believe that Iranians are devious terrorists eager to wreak havoc in the world because that fits the image of Iran we ignorantly embraced 35 years ago.
The hostage crisis had far-reaching effects. It stirred patriotic sentiment in Iran that allowed the Islamic government to consolidate its power, and drove the United States into the arms of Saddam Hussein, who we supported in the Iran-Iraq war because we were so angry at Iran. Perhaps the worst effect was that it created passions in both countries that blind us to the deep interests we share in the Middle East and beyond. No episode in living memory shows so clearly that self-defeating emotion can grotesquely misshape global politics.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.