Iran has decided to let its most recent hostages go. The 15 British sailors who've been detained in Teheran have been even paraded in front of the leader with the name nobody can pronounce to shake his hand and make small talk before they get on the plane home. Maybe Iran has learned something from its own history.
Back in 1979, Iran first took hostages, paraded them on TV, threatened to put them on trial, forced them to confess their crimes and generally behaved as very, very bad hosts. An d instead of holding them for a couple of weeks and moving on with a handshake and a smile, back then they held them for exactly 444 days.
The Time magazine above, "Blackmailing the U.S." is the first issue to come out in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis which basically dragged on for 14 months, cost Jimmy Carter his presidency, and gave it to Ronald Reagan. Remember that it ended literally on the day Reagan took office and the Iranians knew either the hostages came home or the missiles started flying. Here's how the article began:
It was an ugly, shocking image of innocence and impotence, of tyranny and terror, of madness and mob rule. Blindfolded and bound, employees of the U.S. embassy in Tehran were paraded last week before vengeful crowds while their youthful captors gloated and jeered.
On that gray Sunday morning when 60 Americans were imprisoned by their Iranian student captors, the world changed. President Carter said at the beginning that "These last two days have been the worst I've had." Well, they didn't get better. Carter was seen as weak already, and this just made things seem even clearer to the public.
As frustration about the plight of the hostages increased, there was a sense that the Administration should do something —anything—to free them. The White House, for sound tactical and strategic reasons, rejected the military options. There were demands for the mass deportation of the 50,000 Iranian students in the U.S.—or at least those who had taken advantage of their visas to picket and demonstrate against the U.S. That was also rejected, since it would blatantly violate U.S. immigration laws. Instead, as it has had to do in a number of other recent crises, the Administration decided on restraint.
Around the U.S. though, there was the beginning of push-back. Iranian students were here in the U.S. in large numbers as the article indicated above, and they were largely out protesting against our country for letting the hated Shah of Iran in for medical treatment.
In New York City, at the close of an Iranian student demonstration, a Columbia University undergraduate shouted: "We're gonna ship you back, and you aren't gonna like it! No more booze. No more Big Macs. No more rock music. No more television. No more sex. You're gonna get on that plane at Kennedy, and when you get off in Tehran, you're gonna be back in the 13th century. How you gonna like that?" The Iranians, who stared back glumly, did not respond.
This situation was a key illustration of how the terrorism game was set up to work. One of the Iranian hostage-taking "students" was quoted in Time saying: "If the Marines don't shoot, we take over. If they do, we have our martyr. Either way, we win." Then there was the White House aide who talked like a Pentagon war gamer: "It's a classic case of gaming versus an irrational opponent. As the irrationality approaches 100%, your ability to game nears zero."
Not that I think the current leader of Iran is any more rational than Khomeini or the students were, the optimism that was felt three decades ago actually was warranted this time. Here's how it played in 1979.
Still, by week's end the Administration was feeling a bit more hopeful about the situation. Having avoided any sort of response that might have worked to the disadvantage of the hostages, the U.S. was increasingly counting on growing pressure from the international community and from Iran's own middle class to exert some influence on the religious leaders and the students. One goal of the American diplomatic strategy was to isolate Iran and make it appear as an irrational outlaw in world opinion.
I'm not sure if the Iranian hostage crisis quite rises to the "Where Were You?" level of 9/11, JFK or Challenger, but I have vivid memories. I was the weekend anchor at KVOA-TV in Tucson, Arizona and I remember reading the first wire copy, and then doing the update on the news. I worked the late shift in those days, and I also remember coming back and watching that new ABC late-night show, "America Held Hostage" with some guy named Ted Koppel who had even bigger hair than I did back then.
Yes, the times they were really changing. Time really nailed it with the very last two sentences of their article, capturing the wave of the future. Worth reading again.
However the embassy affair ends, it is a sharp reminder of the degree to which the traditional rules of international conduct can no longer be taken for granted. The world is changing; the unpredictable is becoming the commonplace.
Anyway, that's how they reported it some 28 years ago during the grand-daddy of all hostage crises.