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    Hostage to history

    November 4, 1997
    The Iranian

    This article is an excerpt from the revised version titled "International Communication: A Dialogue of the Deaf?" (1982).

    There is a tide in the affairs of men,
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    -- Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"

    The Iranian hostage crisis 18 years ago, served the fourfold interests of both Iran and the United States in,

    (1) practically mobilizing national unity at a divisive moment in their histories,
    (2) instrumentally controlling each side's political forces domestically and internationally,
    (3) critically elevating each side's moral position while putting the other side in the worst possible light, and
    (4) recognizing, in the end, their common and global strategic interests in the sanctity of diplomatic immunity, preservation of innocent human lives, and de-escalation of a local conflict that threatened to turn into a larger conflict detrimental to the interests of all concerned.

    Let us examine the drama in greater detail and at the major points in its unfolding.


    The overthrow of the Shah's regime in Iran should be considered in light of the struggles of a small nation for national independence . For some 180 years, Iranians had struggled against considerable geopolitical odds to achieve a measure of dignified autonomy in a strategically and economically important region of the world.

    Dominated by British-Russian (later Soviet) rivalries, modern Iran had looked to a third Great Power (France, Germany, the United States) to balance the power of the first two. With its anti-colonial reputation, the United States presented an ideal candidate in the postwar period such as role.

    For its part, U. S. involvement in Iran was motivated by oil interests and Cold War strategic rivalries against the Soviet Union, buttressed by a postwar ideology of liberal internationalism and interventionism.

    However, the role of the United States in Iran underwent a major shift as it replaced Britain and the Soviet Union as the dominant power in Iran. The ClA-sponsored coup d'etat of 1953 against Dr. Mosaddeq's liberal democratic government in order to bring the Shah back to power, punctured the liberal nationalist illusions about the U. S. championship of democracy.

    The United States became increasingly identified with the Shah's dictatorial regime and its excesses, while the Shah came to look to the United States as his main ally and benefactor. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 combined several different repressed revolutionary processes into a single revolt, including anti-colonial nationalism, democratic liberalism, communism, and grassroots Islamism.

    While the anti-colonial revolt united, the ideologies of liberalism, communism, and Islamism divided the revolutionary forces. Postures towards the United States significantly differed among the different elements with the liberal Islamists (Bazargan and his allies) most favorably disposed.

    The hostage crisis took place in the context of these historical circumstances. It revived the memories of August 1953, when the Shah had fled the country only to be returned to power four days later by U. S. intervention.

    Under President Carter's Administration, however, the United States was still emerging out of a post-Vietnam War syndrome of withdrawal and retrenchment. In the face of the Iranian Revolution, the White House was thus divided between the hawks led by the National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and the doves led by the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

    The hawks generally argued for some kind of intervention in the fashion of the 1953 coup d'etat, while the doves were arguing for some kind of accommodation with the Iranian revolutionaries. Given his ambivalent position, President Carter was torn between the two camps as events rapidly unfolded.

    The Iranian revolutionaries were thus deeply suspicious of the U. S. intentions. The situation, therefore, lent itself to profound misperceptions and symbolic politics on both sides. It also provided the media with an insuperable human drama endowed with a beginning, a middle, and an endñtragic or triumphal.

    Enter the Shah

    Following the overthrow of the Shah, in February 1979, the debate on U.S. policy in Iran centered on whether or not to give refuge to the fallen and wandering monarch. Loyalty to an old and faithful ally clearly called for not only his admission but also assistance to regain his throne; this was considered an "American tradition" upon which the "national interest" practically converged.

    However, U. S. instrumental interests dictated otherwise. The revolution in Iran was by all accounts a popular uprising; it manifested strong religious and anti-communist tendencies; therefore, it could be manipulated to the advantage of U.S. strategic interests against the Soviet Union in a strategic part of the world.

    A refuge for the Shah would have thoroughly undermined the U.S. position with the new regime. Therefore, U.S. diplomatic dispatches from Tehran as well as policy analysis in Washington recommended against his admission.

    But the medical diagnosis of his terminal cancer changed the picture. Humanglobal interests in human rights had been declared to be a cornerstone of President Carter's foreign policy. U. S. critical interests therefore combined with instrumental interests to argue for the Shah's admission into the United States.

    The ''old boy'' network of Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and John J. McCloy were pressing for the White House not to let down an old ally lest others take heed. The Shah was finally admitted into a New York hospital for medical treatment. This decision was made against the explicit warnings of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran which had been occupied on February 14, 1979, by revolutionary militants for a few hours.

    President Carter's fateful decision served three different symbolic functions at the time: (1 ) to soothe the guilt feelings of having let down an ally; (2) to placate those who were posing a question on "who lost Iran''; and, (3) to project an image of president who is sensitive to human rights while tough on issues of national interest.

    The Seizure of the Embassy. On November 4, 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by a group of Islamic student revolutionaries who identified themselves as the Imam's (Khomeini) Disciples. It was followed by a sit-in to protest against the Shah's admission into the United States.

    In Iran's revolutionary politics, the seizure of the Embassy served three different symbolic functions. First and foremost, it was practically a coup against Prime Minister Bazargan. The seizure of the Embassy had come at a time when the conflict between the liberal moderates led by Bazargan and the revolutionary radicals led by Ayatollah Khomeini, in alliance with a myriad of leftist parties including the Tudeh (communist) Party, had reached a breaking point.

    A week earlier, Bazargan and Foreign Minister Yazdi had met U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algiers to discuss an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations. The seizure of the Embassy forced Bazargan to resign.

    By now, it was clear that grassroots power was in the hands of the clerics who controlled the Revolutionary Committees. Thus, opposition to the clerical leadership by the liberals and moderates was successfully silenced by a national frenzy of sentiments against the crimes of the Shah and U.S. imperialism. The seizure of the Embassy also provided the "evidence" of a "den of spies" in the shredded files, "implicating" some liberals and moderates.

    Secondly, the threat to put the U. S. diplomats on trial on charges of spying provided Iran with a negotiating position demanding the Shah's extradition to stand trial and return of his ill-gotten foreign assets.

    These demands served the instrumental interests of the Iranian government, while the fact that the seizure of the embassy had been undertaken by an autonomous group of student revolutionaries "exonerated" it from violating the international norms of diplomatic immunity.

    Finally, the seizure of the Embassy contained elements of enormous international symbolic significance for the revolutionaries. It instrumentally served to dramatize the cause of Iran in international forums as well as to ''emancipate'' the oppressed everywhere from the fear of U.S. omnipotence.

    The release of 13 women and blacks from among the hostages, the organization of an international conference in Tehran to unmask the crimes of the Shah and U.S. imperialism, the advertising of Khomeini's letter to the Pope in some major Western newspapers, the friendly reception given to Third World journalists and mediators, all symbolized efforts to mobilize world public opinion on Iran's behalf.

    Although this was successful to a degree among those nations that had suffered colonial domination, gleeful in a vicarious satisfaction of the humiliation of the United States, the international state-system as a whole could not accept the violation of its most essential rules of conduct, i.e., the protection and immunity of diplomats.

    On the domestic front, before the hostage crisis, revolutionary enthusiasm has begun to ebb in the face of mounting economic and political difficulties. There is evidence to the effect that both the student militants and their mentors were surprised by the degree of spontaneous national support they received for the seizure of the Embassy.

    The sit-in thus turned into a siege to galvanize further support and serve revolutionary solidarity interests. This was aided in part also by the issue of the hostages becoming an important symbolic factor in the U.S. Presidential elections and receiving an unprecedented media attention.

    Some benign neglect by President Carter regarding the hostages issue might have actually helped to hasten their release, but he made the issue a centerpiece of his re-election campaign on which he could stand or fall.

    The Catharsis

    The tumultuous welcome the hostages received upon their return home symbolized in no uncertain terms the extraordinary significance of the affair in recent United States history. However, it also underlined the symbiotic power of the media in combination with the presidency to focus on a single issue for 444 days to the detriment of most other domestic and international issues.

    Following in the wake of the humiliations of Vietnam and Watergate, the hostage crisis symbolized yet another facet of a weakening America. A nation yearning to believe in itself seized upon the hostage crisis and its victims/heroes as symbols of traditional American virtues of quiet strength under stress.

    For the United States, as a superpower, the hostage crisis marked a turning point in its climate of opinion -- from aversion to war and foreign entanglements born out of the Korean and Vietnam experiences to one of support for assertiveness and military preparedness.

    One consequence of this was the dramatic rise in the U. S. defense budget; another was renewed efforts by the Reagan Administration toward public diplomacy -- the dissemination of America's message abroad which became "Washington's major growth industry" during the media-conscious Reagan years .

    For Iran, as a small power in the grip of a revolutionary upheaval, the hostage crisis suggested once again the limits of its power. Despite its doggedness, the clerical leadership in Iran finally failed to achieve any of its original objectives -- the return of the Shah and his wealth, a public apology from the United States for its past interference in Iran, and sympathy for its cause.

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