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US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis

US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis
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  1  Jimmy Carter and the tragedy offoreign policy When an American president has been defeated at the Novemberelection held to determine who will sit in the Oval Office for the nextfour years, he usually spends the last days and hours of his presidencypreparing for the handover of power which takes place the following January.He contemplates,usuallywithmuch regret,thechangewhichhas come over his life, undoubtedly mulling over the unpleasant andsometimes icy task of escorting the winning candidate to his inaugur-ation. He begins to plan what will come next, perhaps thinking aboutthearrangementsforthepresidentiallibrarywhichwillcarryhisname.The end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency was different. His last twodays were spent cloistered in the Oval Office with his closest advisers,enmeshed until the very last minutes in an issue which had come toobsesshimpersonallyandwhichhelpeddestroyanyprospecthemighthave had of achieving re-election in 1980: the release of the Americanhostages who had been held in Tehran for almost 444 days. That issuewasabouttobecomeanotherman’sproblem.ButJimmyCarterwasnota man to leave loose ends. There was unfinished business to do.The president and his closest advisers worked around the clock,eating their meals in the Oval Office, their only sleep an occasional catnap on one of the sofas which now adorn the Jimmy Carter Library inAtlanta. The black and white photographs of these last hours tell thestorymorevividlythananywordscan.Thephotos–reminiscentof thevivid portraits of Lyndon Johnson during the last days of his struggleoverVietnam– showahaggard,sleep-deprivedpresident,surrounded by similarly exhausted advisers doing what they can to reach a deal beforetimerunsout.Thephotographs,andtheABCNewsfilmshotonthe day Carter left the presidency, paint a compelling and tragic pic-ture. Even in the car on the way to the inauguration ceremony that 1 © Cambridge University Presswww.cambridge.orgCambridge University Press0521801168 - US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage CrisisDavid Patrick HoughtonExcerptMore information  would see Ronald Reagan become America’s 40th president, CarterwasstillreceivinglastminutereportsfromhisadviserHamiltonJordanon the hostage situation.The pressure on Carter to act decisively, to do something whichwould bring the crisis to its resolution and bring the hostages home,had been immense. From the very beginning, the hostage crisis hadexertedastrikingeffectonordinaryAmericans,whograduallybecameas obsessed as Carter with the fate of their countrymen. 1 On ABCtelevision, Ted Koppel began hosting a nightly programme – whichlater became  Nightline  – endlessly detailing the latest developments inthe crisis, while on CBS Walter Cronkite, a man implicitly trusted bymost Americans, kept up the continual pressure on Carter by signingoff his newscast each night with the number of days the hostages had been held in captivity. Americans bought yellow ribbons and Iranianflags in record numbers (the ribbons for tying to oak trees, the flags forpublic burning). Stunned by the hatred they saw broadcast daily fromIran on the nightly news but found well-nigh incomprehensible,Americans had responded with a nationalism, and often a jingoism, of their own. Archival television footage captures the vivid colours of thetimes: the yellow of the ribbons, the red, white and blue of Old GloryandeffigiesofUncleSam,thegreenandrustybrownofIran’sstandard,and, perhaps most of all, the symbol-laden red and orange of fire.Bythespringof1980Carterhad triedeverypeacefulmeanshecouldthinkoftoobtainthereleaseofthehostages.HehadstoppedimportingIranianoil,brokenoffdiplomaticrelations,askedtheUnitedNationstointercede, sent a variety of third parties and intermediaries to Tehran, brainstormed America’s Iranian experts in the universities, and more besides.Nothinghetriedhadproducedthedesiredresult.Fivemonthsintothecrisishehadthen,on24April1980,resortedtoamilitaryrescuemission, an option initially considered so difficult to implement that ithad been more or less rejected by military planners early on.The mission was the greatest disaster of Carter’s presidency. Eightservicemen died in the rescue attempt, all as a result of a collision betweenaircraft whichoccurred followingthe cancellationoftheoper-ation midway through. To make matters worse, the remaining mem- bers of the rescue force chose or were compelled to leave behind the bodies of their colleagues – together with sensitive government docu-ments – in the Iranian desert. Both the bodies and the documents were 1 Gary Sick,  October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (New York: Times Books /  RandomHouse, 1991), pp. 17–18. US foreign policy and the Iran hostage crisis2 © Cambridge University Presswww.cambridge.orgCambridge University Press0521801168 - US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage CrisisDavid Patrick HoughtonExcerptMore information  soon publicly and triumphally paraded by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini,much to President Carter’s disgust. At 1.15 on the morning of 25 Aprilthe events of the previous day were made public in a statement issuedfrom the White House; then, at 7 o’clock that same morning, a devas-tated and ashen-faced Jimmy Carter appeared live on national televi-sion and radio to announce that America had tried to free the hostagesmilitarilybut had failed. Speaking from the Oval Office, Carter made afrank statement: IorderedthisrescuemissionpreparedinordertosafeguardAmericanlives, to protect America’s national interests, and to reduce the ten-sions in the world that have been caused among many nations as thiscrisis has continued. It was my decision to attempt the rescue oper-ation.It was my decision to cancel it whenproblems developedin theplacement of our rescue team for a future rescue operation. Theresponsibility is fully my own . . . The United States remains deter-mined to bring about their safe release at the earliest date possible. Perhapssurprisingly,theimmediatepublicreactiontotheannounce-ment of the failed mission was favourable to the president. On 4November 1979 – the day the hostages were seized – Carter’s approvalrating was a meagre 32 per cent, but it rose dramatically to 61 per centshortlythereafter.AsKennethMorrisexplains,‘althoughtheeffectwasnotimmediate, in thewaythatAmericans rallybehind thepresidentintimesofinternationalcrisisCartersoonsawhisapprovalratingsrising.By the end of November they had once again crossed the 50 percentmark; by January they approached 60 percent.’ 2 While these ratings begantofallagainthereafter,therewasalsoarathermoremodest‘rallyaround the flag’ effect after Carter announced that he had tried torescue the hostages. Carter’s approval rating rose from 39 per cent beforetheannouncementto43 percentshortlyafter.Somemembers of America’s foreign policy establishment also lauded Carter’s attempt,seeingthe move as a brave, well-intentioned and perhaps unavoidableeffortto restore American pride. James Schlesinger,for instance, calledita‘courageousdecision’,whichhad‘drawnthepublicsupportdeserv-edlygiventoPresidentsduringtimesof trouble’.Theglobaldangersof not acting in the face of such an unforgivable provocation were toogreat and were outweighed by the disadvantages, he argued. 3 FormerSecretary of State Henry Kissinger and future CIA Director James 2 Kenneth Morris,  Jimmy Carter: American Moralist  (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1996), pp. 277–8. 3  James Schlesinger,‘Some Lessons of Iran’,  New York Times , 6 May 1980.  Jimmy Carter3 © Cambridge University Presswww.cambridge.orgCambridge University Press0521801168 - US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage CrisisDavid Patrick HoughtonExcerptMore information  Woolsey also voiced their support in the days after the failed raid. 4 In the longerterm, however,theeffects were deeply negative.By themiddle of Summer 1980, the proportion of Americans saying that theyapproved of Carter’s overall performance had fallen to a low of 21 percent. 5 For many in the American and international media, the failedmission was emblematic of the Carter administration as a whole, pro-viding yet further evidence of the foreign policy incompetence withwhich they had long charged James Earl Carter as a president. 6 Thecampaign of Ronald Reagan consciously fed upon the atmosphere of disillusionment, frustration and national impotence which the failedrescue mission had helped to instil. While foreign policy was certainlynot the only or decisive factor which led to Carter’s defeat in thepresidentialelectionof1980–thestateoftheeconomy,asissooftenthecaseatnationalUSelections,hadadecisiveeffectupontheincumbent’sfortunes– seeminglyinsoluble foreignand economicpolicy difficultiesmeshed together to create the inevitable appearance of a well-inten-tioned but ultimately failed presidency.This book is about the crisis which brought Jimmy Carter to thispoint. It is about a tragedy in American and Iranian foreign policywhich continues to affect relations between the two nations today,memories of which continue to engender distrust and dislike. Beforeembarking upon the narrative which follows, however, some dis-claimers are in order. This book is not intended as a full history of US–Iranian relations. This task has already been undertaken with con-summate skill by others. Nor is it even intended as a full history of theIranian hostage crisis, or an attempt to document the twists and turnswhich beset the process of negotiating the release of the hostages(interesting though these may be to students of diplomacy or bargain-ingtechnique). 7 Somephasesinthehostagecrisisaredeliberatelygiven 4 See‘USPatienceNotEndless,KissingerSaysofEffort’, LosAngelesTimes ,26April1980;R.JamesWoolsey,‘SometimesTheLongShotsPayOff’, WashingtonPost ,28April1980. 5 The polling data are taken from James Q. Wilson , American Government: Institutions andPolicies ,5thedn(Lexington,Massachusetts:DCHeath,1992),p.557andCharlesKegleyand Eugene Wittkopf,  American Foreign Policy: Pattern and Process  (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 280. 6 See,for instance,  Newsweek  ,5 May1980;  Time , 5 May1980; Richard Barnet, ‘The Failureof a Raid – and of a Policy’,  Los Angeles Times , 29 April 1980;  The Economist , ‘ShrunkenAmerica’, 3 May 1980. 7 See for instance, James Bill,  The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American–IranianRelations (London:YaleUniversityPress, 1988),whichisprobablythe bestintroductionto the subject in print. For a detailed analysis of the negotiations, see Russell Moses, Freeing the Hostages: Re-Examining the US–Iranian Negotiations and Soviet Policy, 1979– 1981  (Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania:University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985). US foreign policy and the Iran hostage crisis4 © Cambridge University Presswww.cambridge.orgCambridge University Press0521801168 - US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage CrisisDavid Patrick HoughtonExcerptMore information

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