Iran Hostage Crisis
Materials & Resources
When a group of militant Islamist students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, they touched off one of the most significant diplomatic crises that this country has ever faced, and transformed the way the U.S. government deals with Islamist fundamentalism in the Middle East. What had begun as a protest against American support of the ousted Shah and involvement in Iran's internal affairs turned into an event that further radicalized the Iranian revolution and has defined Iran's relationship with the United States for three decades.
Interviews conducted for the Miller Center's Jimmy Carter Oral History Project offer incredible insights on not only how the President and his team handled this nightmare scenario for the U.S. government, but also how the hostage crisis crippled Carter's 1980 re-election campaign. Interviews for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project make clear how Reagan's team viewed the situation, and how they approached it even before the nation's 40th President was inaugurated.
The collection of Miller Center resources about the U.S.-Iran relationship also includes President Carter's address to the nation followed the failed rescue attempt, as well as several Forum programs and the National Discussion and Debate Series event focusing on a nuclear Iran.PRESIDENTIAL ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM | PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES | FORUMS | NATIONAL DISCUSSION AND DEBATE SERIES
PRESIDENTIAL ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
The cleared transcripts of the Jimmy Carter Oral History Project and the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project offer extraordinary reminiscences of the hostage crisis both from inside the White House and the campaign.
On the decision to let the Shah into the United States to receive medical treatment, and how it impacted events:
...Even in those good days in our relationship with Iran, I thought it was a serious mistake to disrupt that progress and to arouse animosity against our people in Iran because we brought the Shah in. I very seldom use expletives in public but there was one time when I shouted, blank the Shah. ... And I would ask them every now and then, "What would we do if they took one of our Marines out?" They've taken a Marine once you know, and particularly when they took over our satellite observation post, they had taken some American hostages and then released them. "What are we going to do if they take twenty of our Marines and kill one of them every morning at sunrise?" You know, are we going to go to war with Iran? That's the kind of thing we have to avoid.
We also had the problem at the beginning having forty thousand Americans in Iran. We had very surreptitiously extracted all these Americans with enormous difficulty out of Iran, because for weeks at a time there would be no commercial planes going in or out of Tehran during the revolution, and thousands of people were being killed in Iran. We didn't lose any Americans because we very quietly got them out, either to military bases and extracted them in C-130s or otherwise. The final case was that we had fairly good relations with [Prime Minister Mehdi] Bazargan and [Foreign Minister Mehdi] Yazdi. Our embassy was down to about seventy people versus eleven hundred. It was the largest embassy on earth when the Shah was in power. We had refurbished its security features and put in a heavier Marine detachment and had firm commitments from Bazargan and Yazdi to protect it....
...I guess for six hundred years of recorded history as far as I know a host government has never endorsed or condoned the abuse or attack or kidnapping of a nation's emissaries and diplomats. This was a departure from all historical precedent. And that was not a major consideration because I didn't think it was going to happen. I thought they might have abused or gone into the embassy or something, but I never dreamed that the government would not eventually, maybe over a period of hours, come on in there.
On how the hostage crisis affected his job as President:
...No matter what else happened, it was always there. It was painful because I was failing to accomplish what seemed to be a simple task to get those hostages home, and the personal responsibility I felt for them was there. But I couldn't ignore them and didn't ignore all the other routine jobs of the Presidency. So there was no way to separate the two. It was just an overlaying of feeling, distraught, or ill at ease, or uncomfortable. Even when we'd go to Camp David and I had a fairly relaxed weekend, I was always thinking about the hostages and getting them home. (Page 51)
On working back channels to try to get the hostages released:
The other thing was that not too long after that, in November after the hostages were taken, there was a need that I felt to circumscribe my appearances and my vulnerability to cross-examination. We had so many multiple avenues of effort trying to go to Khomeini to get our hostages released that I didn't want to have to either mislead the American people or say, "I can't answer the question," or be obviously devious. If I was questioned about [Muammar] Gaddafi or [Yasser] Arafat, we were also working with them trying to get them to get our hostages out. And then not only those semi-disreputable people, but also there were people who were helping us that would have been injured had their efforts been revealed. The Algerians, and in some cases, a lot of the Iranian leaders were educated in France. A lot of them were educated in Germany. We were unsuccessful during the first six months in working through our so-called French Connections. Eventually, it was the German connection, strangely enough, that let us get to the Iranians and eventually through the Algerians to get the hostage released. In the hostage area, which seemed never to end, I just didn't want to be constantly exposing myself to repetitive cross-examinations by very knowledgeable news reporters.
On the debate over whether to allow the Shah to come to the U.S. for medical treatment:
When the Shah left Iran, he did not want to come to the United States for several reasons. First of all, he had the dream, totally unrealistic, that [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini might quickly fall on his face and that there might be a chance for him to return to Iran just as he had done in 1953 with the help of the CIA. To take advantage of that possibility, he thought it was a mistake to leave the Middle East. He particularly did not want to play into the hands of his opponents by leaving Iran and rushing to the United States. So the door to him coming to the United States was open in December and January of '78 and '79 primarily as an inducement to get him to step down while there was still a chance of the moderate elements of the Iranian government forming something less radical, less extreme than the Khomeini government. He chose not to do that.
...The reality of the thing was that the Khomeini government was a fact of life. We had an enormous stake in a relationship with Iran both in terms of the oil we received from Iran and the strategic importance of Iran in the Persian Gulf. Our position changed to one of, "Please don't ask to come now because we're trying to develop a relationship with this new administration, this new regime in Iran." That of course proved to be fruitless.
...The Iranians objected to the Shah's coming to the States for medical reasons. They were skeptical that it was true, they thought it was part of some conspiracy to try to return the Shah to power. Our embassy in Tehran, including Bruce Langdon, advised strongly against it. But based with the reassurance that they would protect our embassy and the compelling humanitarian argument for letting the Shah in, the President begrudgingly agreed to do that. The last thing he said at the last meeting we had on it was, "What are you guys going to advise me to do when they overrun our embassy now and take our people hostage?" Carter actually predicted what would happen, although everybody said you've got to let the Shah in.(Page 73)
On how it affected the campaign:
We made an early judgment in a time when it looked like it was going to first last a few days and then a few weeks. At first he needed to stay there because all these things were going on behind the scenes and no one knew about them. He was having to stay on top of them and make decisions or approve working on these different things that we were negotiating. There was, for one, a real need for him to stay there. The decision not to campaign until the hostages were released seemed to take the high ground.
As the days and weeks passed, it looked like an excuse for Carter to hide behind the issue and to avoid the campaign. In fact, by election day in November of 1980, the perception widely held was that Carter had manipulated the hostage crisis to his own political benefit, which was not true. But that perception was largely a result of what was called the Rose Garden strategy, which is a decision we made in late December, stating that it wasn't appropriate for him to be out campaigning until they were home. We didn't take into account the fact that they might be held not only for weeks but for months....
The perception is that the hostage crisis saved Carter from Ted Kennedy. The week the hostages were seized there was a public opinion poll out that showed Kennedy running neck and neck with Carter. Kennedy had already begun his enormous decline from his summer lead over us of almost two to one. Certainly Carter benefited from the American people. As you know better than myself, they always tend to rally around their President in a crisis, and that rallying took place during the hostage crisis. Carter said that before he had the debate scheduled with Kennedy.
Then on top of all that, we had the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which in a lot of ways was much more ominous in its implications than the hostage crisis. Carter said, "If I go out to debate Kennedy in Iowa, I'm going to go out there as a President and I'm going to come back just as a politician. I need to stay on the high ground on these issues if we're going to do these things, if we're going to lift the grain embargo and boycott the Olympics and go for draft registration." So Carter made a move not ignoring the politics of it, but he made a decision that he needed to stay there to work on the thing and he needed to be perceived at home and around the world as a President and not as a guy out there scrambling around for votes. When he made that decision, neither he nor any of us dreamed that the thing was going to go on for weeks or months, and then ultimately for over a year.(Page 77)
On whether Iran was trying to influence the election:
They didn't understand our country, just as we didn't understand theirs. You remember they let the blacks and the women out the first few weeks with the feeling that there'd be some uprising in this country by blacks and women in protest of our Iran policy. They didn't understand our country, but they wanted to see Carter defeated. They would tell you today in Iran that Khomeini defeated Carter.
Lloyd Cutler, White House Counsel
On Carter’s leadership ability:
I did not find him indecisive at all. I found him deliberate and decisive. But it may have been too late by that time to erase the image. As for the seizure of the hostages, our inability to make some emotionally satisfying response, I think, is what hurt more than anything else. It brought home, as almost nothing else had done, a sense of impotence, that the great United States couldn’t do anything about this bunch of crazy militants in Tehran who had seized 52 people. There was nothing we could do about it that we were willing to do. It induced a sense of outrage and frustration and humiliation that we just had to take out on somebody. Vietnam had done that in a way, and had cost Johnson his job.
The seizure of the hostages was an enormous disadvantage. One could argue that it had offsetting benefits, since attention was focused on the President and what the President was doing about this issue, and that if he had gotten them back in a month or two it would have been a big triumph for him. But net, it was a great disadvantage and it is very much to his credit I think that he did not do what other Presidents might well have done, which would have been to take a very extreme, firm position, a declaration of war, an immediate naval blockade or some such thing. That could have won him the Presidency in 1980. I don’t have any question in my mind that had that been our response, regardless of all the other dreadful consequences that might have occurred, it would have so dominated public attention that he would have won in 1980. And he didn’t do that. He didn’t do it. Recognize that by not doing it, he was imposing a political penalty on himself.
You can argue it, it was argued at the time, and you could argue in hindsight that the right way to have handled the problem was to have ignored it and just let the militants wear themselves out. But there wasn’t any way to keep the television reporters from interviewing those militants every night and showing pictures of the hostages that they chose to take and furnish to the reporters. And here was this anomaly of American journalists running all over Tehran talking to everybody when no American diplomat could say a word to any Iranian. We were just absolutely cut off.
…I do think it’s true that whatever one might feel, whether the hand was played correctly by Nixon, Ford, Carter, or others, before the fall of the Shah or after the fall of the Shah up to the seizure of the hostages, I think from then on it was handled about as well as it could be handled. There are experienced British diplomats and others who have spent a lot of time in that area who think the right response would have been to go to war immediately and that if you put on a big enough show of strength to the Iranians, they would have buckled right away. But failing war, I think he played it right and that war was a very risky course as we all know.
There’s no question in my mind that if the Iranians had not buckled – and we’ve seen enough of the Ayatollah by this time in the war between Iraq and Iran to see that he doesn’t buckle easily – the Soviets would have helped themselves to Azerbaijan beyond any question by now, we would have had enormous turmoil in the Gulf, uprisings, and we would have lost the Arabs’ support if we had just gone in there, and especially if we had killed a few thousand Iranians.
On the rescue mission:
Oddly enough, although I think the failure hurt the President and hurt our own image, all of the criticism and reproach went to the failure and not to the intent. Another strange thing that happened is that after the attempt was made, no one criticized the President for having made the attempt. And once we had gotten it out of our system that we had to make a response, no one advocated more strenuous military measures thereafter. The one military measure that we had laid on the line even before that, and I think would have gone through with, is that if the Iranians had persisted in going ahead to try the hostages as spies, we would have imposed a sea blockade, and we made that very clear. And they didn’t do it.
Philip Klutznick, Secretary of Commerce
On the failed rescue mission:
That virtually destroyed him election-wise. The hostages being held in Iran was almost the worst thing that could ever have happened to him. You almost felt the tears in his voice as he spoke and he read it and said, “I’m not asking anybody to take a part of this problem. This was my decision and my decision alone. I will be issuing this statement in the morning and I want you to know that I’m taking full responsibility.”
But this was typical of him. What was more typical was, you know – this doesn’t gain a lot of press – those hostages were released before the new administration took over on the last night of the [Carter] administration, he was so happy that even though he was leaving his post that for the first time to my knowledge in the White House he served hard liquor! I had a plane waiting for me. My son’s plane had come down and was going to take my wife and me home, but the notion of having the scotch in the White House President’s apartment delayed my departure.
Gerald Rafshoon, White House Communications Director
On how the election timing affected President Carter's approach:
He had the opportunity even that Sunday before the election, when we were discussing what he was going to say. Somebody said, “Just tell them to go to hell. Really get out there and tell them we’re not going to be pushed around anymore.” And as far as the election is concerned, that may have helped. That Sunday we interrupted television programming and he made a statement saying, “We are not going to be influenced by the calendar; this is a positive step but it’s not going to happen right away.” It was a positive step. But we knew they were intimidating us with the election. His answer at the time was – and Hamilton [Jordan] brought this up – what if they said, “Okay, well, we’ll just have trials” and then they’ll come back and say, “We will try one a day.” We were dealing with a really crazy situation. What would they do? That might have helped politically.
We always knew we’d get them out eventually, alive. Military action would have killed them. They would have gone crazy. They would have killed our hostages. What would the military action have done, except make the country feel that we want to occupy Iran? Did we want the Russians to come in? It made no sense, except from a public relations standpoint.
Al Friendly, Associate Press Secretary, National Security Council
On the Carter White House’s ability to take control of the Iran situation, either on Capitol Hill or in the press:
... I don’t want to defame any characters, but there were several very able Republican staff people on the Hill with access to all kinds of valid and not valid intelligence information, who constituted themselves, formally or informally, an advance hit squad to make sure that the administration didn’t get away with anything on Iran – or on any other subjects in the national security field in the last two months of the campaign. They’d been working from before, and they had a lot of volunteer help in the bureaucracy, too. But these were the people who produced the steady stories about SALT violations by the Soviets and who also – I can’t prove it, but strongly suspect it – fed out a whole variety of ticklers on what they believed to be going on with Iran, including the stories that Jack Anderson printed about the preparations for an invasion.
That was really, to me, a very interesting episode, because even though it was patently incredible, it got printed and discussed seriously in the press. It was, to me, an example of the inability of the Carter White House – but maybe it would have been true of any White House – to mobilize that kind of network we were talking about before, people who stand up around the country and say, “I know Jimmy Carter, and I know he wouldn’t do that. That’s just not his way,” and to have killed the story that way.
Right before the election, there was that radio station in Chicago that was absolutely convinced that we had ransomed the hostages. Remember? And it was on the air for 48 hours straight, with stories about how Dan Rather and Barbara Walters were flying to Iran with a planeload of spare parts and would be flying back with a planeload of hostages. You couldn’t tell that Chicago station, or some other reporters who had to deal with its output, that this was just hogwash. You could tell them, and they wouldn’t buy it. But the inflation of the interest – at least until the last weekend before the election, when the President flew back briefly to the White House – was not, as far as I was aware, a conscious campaign or public strategy on our part. It was a business of responding to both real events and a great many unreal ones.
Alonzo McDonald, Special Representative for Trade Negotiations and White House Staff Director
On how President Carter reached his position on dealing with the hostage-takers, and how it affected the campaign and Carter’s legacy:
It was not that he didn’t care. He had taken his choice, and in his mind I’m sure that he consistently acted on the basis of principle. Having weighed those criteria, he didn’t change it. He lived by them. Now, with losing his bid for reelection, he has paid the ultimate price. If external circumstances such as the Iranian situation had not been what they were, he would not have paid the ultimate price. He would have snuck it off, in which case he would have been regarded, firstly, as one hell of a politician, and then as a President. But he lost the game because the last, unfortunate plays were crucial. History will judge the Carter administration based on the results.
On how President Carter handled negotiating with the Iranian parliament and the last days of the campaign:
When he got a call about three o’clock in the morning about the terms of the Iranian parliament, he knew there was no way that he could act responsibly and still be President. The events were out of his hands.
... We knew that 17 percent of the American people weren’t all sympathetic with the terms of the Iranian parliament, and the real mood of the country was to say, “By God, we will not take this.” No responsible President could respond to that one. He had to enjoin negotiations because we were dealing in rhetoric, we were dealing in perceptions; we were not dealing with substance. If he had not enjoined negotiations, we would have found ourselves dealing with substance because they would have moved from rhetoric to perhaps a trial or execution, or God knows what else at that point because we were dealing with an irrational government.
Our real problem was how we could live with and manage the perception problem to some degree, without triggering a totally substantive problem of some magnitude at this stage of the game. The unfortunate thing was that we were within about 72 hours of the election. It was absolutely clear that history is going to look at it as the first Presidential statement. It formed the basis on which we were able to get the hostages out. The American people seemed pleased with the statement at the end of the day. We knew that the statement was going to be negative, so we wanted to be as low-key as possible. That’s why we wanted the shortest possible statement.
On how the press interpreted the hostage situation in the run-up to Election Day:
The thing was totally out of control, and again [White House Press Secretary] Jody [Powell] would not come on strong enough. He would say, “Well, we really don’t know.” The truth was we really didn’t know, as he said, but in terms of management of expectations, we did not manage. The President made just one or two efforts, and then he followed through in his questions and answers. But the press had already built a myth that the game was over. In fact, the myth was that Carter was delaying the settlement to have a last minute crunch in the election. The stories couldn’t have been more erroneous, but again it was a communications problem in terms of having a unified message and a perspective, not one pulled out every 12-hour period.
David Rubenstein, Deputy Assistant for Domestic Affairs and Policy
On how the White House tried to cope with the hostage situation:
While Iran went on for a year, each day [President Carter] didn’t have all that much to do on Iran because there was not much going on for a long time. Occasionally when things heated up, of course he was involved, but it wasn’t as if he was having marathon sessions on Iran every day. He needed to give us some domestic policy, maybe an hour of his time on the average a day either with a meeting or with reading memos. We got that time, and I never once heard him say, “I can’t focus on this because I’ve got to worry about Iran.” Maybe that was a problem, but he never mentioned it, and he never used it as a crutch.
… We quickly went into this mode of saying we’re not going to go out and campaign until Iran is over with. As you probably have heard, everybody thought that it would be a week, maybe two weeks, three weeks. As it dragged on we just didn’t know how to handle it and finally we came up with this half-baked excuse of why we were coming out. We campaigned only one day in the primaries.
Stuart Eizenstat, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and Policy
On how the hostage crisis and the other compounding problems affected the administration:
The Iranian crisis was the seminal event that I indicated in the Carter administration, both in terms of foreign policy and in terms of domestic policy. And were it not for that event, and the consequent enormous 120% increase in oil prices, we would have still had high inflation on a relative basis, but we would have been talking about maybe 8% or 9%, and not 12% and 13%. We wouldn’t have had 20% interest rates, we wouldn’t have had to cut the budget in fiscal year ’80 in January. We wouldn’t have had to cut it again in March, which gave the perception of indecisiveness right in the middle of a primary campaign. We would not have had the recession, which was beautifully timed to coincide with the election, and we would have had a far better chance of winning the election. Whether we would have nor not, no one can say.
…it was a tremendously strained atmosphere because of the hostage crisis. Our hopes were built up each time, only to be dashed. It looked like progress was being made, only to find that the Iranians didn’t have their government act together, that really the government wasn’t the government, and that the students or the terrorists really were in control. Bani Sadr – even if he, from his perspective, was entering into discussions in good faith – didn’t have the clout to carry forward his agreements.
And there was an enormous diversion of presidential time and attention from a whole variety of issues, just a lot of tension – the aborted rescue effort, and so forth. It was a very difficult, tense, and unhappy time. Vance’s resignation, which you have in here – which, I think, had little to do with Iran, and more to do with the disavowal of the UN vote – which, by the way, lost us the New York primary. Had we won the New York primary, we were 20 points ahead of Kennedy, and Kennedy would have bowed out in March, and Carter would have had April, May, June, and July to get the party back together. It was a difficult time.
... And then the anniversary came, literally, as we know, on election day, and the networks re-portrayed over that weekend the entire incident – the flag burning – and I think it just incensed people.
It was as if it had just happened again. And whether he would have won or not, I cannot say. I have my doubts, because I think basically we lost because of the economy. But I think it would have been a much closer election, and certainly a less humiliating defeat, had the incredible coincidence of the hostage situation not occurred.
Jack Watson, Transition Director
On the Rose Garden strategy:
I opposed it. I unsuccessfully opposed it from the beginning for political reasons. I’m not Monday morning quarterbacking now. I felt from the beginning that it was a mistake for the President to hold back. I understood what he was doing and the sincerity of his motivation. His motivation was to keep the tension on the hostage situation by not going out of the White House. It was honest.
The President’s feeling was, If I announce that I am not going to campaign and that I am not leaving this White House until we get our hostages back, that will make it clearer to the Iranians, the world, and to the citizens of the united States that this is my number one priority and that I’m going to expend every effort to do it. Symbolically, I’m just not moving out for political purposes until we get this resolved. The President was sincere about that.
I didn’t like the strategy for two reasons. One was symbolic, having to do with the hostages, and the other political. I felt that the President’s doing that would maintain the subject at the top of everybody’s minds every day. It would have been a better strategy with respect to the Iranians to appear to ignore the crisis a little bit. There was no way that we could have ignored it, but we shouldn’t have highlighted it by the President’s continuing stay in the Rose Garden. Every day that strategy was pursued, it gave the situation even more importance than before, if that was possible. Believe me, it was a hard call to make. I can understand why my view did not prevail, but I did nevertheless hold that view.
Richard Moe, Chief of Staff to Vice President Mondale
On how the onset of the campaign coinciding with the hostage situation impacted the way the White House functioned:
... Once the Iranian hostage situation occurred, that dramatically changed the dynamics of everything that happened in the White House. Although this might be hard for people on the outside to believe, it made the political job and the job of the politicians much more difficult. This was something that he was almost exclusively involved in. Everything else got shunted aside. People in the White House, particularly as this issue grew, suffered from a myopia on the subject. Nothing else, including politics, could get through the doors. Ultimately he had to make some decisions regarding politics.
We had a major debate in January of 1980 as to whether or not the President should go to Iowa and debate Kennedy as he’d agreed to do. This was a very basic fundamental question, and we all argued strongly that he should go. He had agreed to do it and if he didn’t do it, this initiative would hang over him and Kennedy could beat him up on it. He ought to just get out there and do it and come back. Well, he was so preoccupied with Iran that he didn’t want to do it. He wanted to cancel out, and in fact he did cancel out. And at the same time he imposed a moratorium on himself in terms of personal campaigning.
That turned out to be very effective short-term politics. It put the President above politics, he was dealing in an important national security matter, but he was also scrubbing around for votes and he came across more as an effective statesman and as a national leader. Of course we all know the results of those early primaries.
I emphasize the phrase “short-term” because the perception set in, whether right or wrong, and I think it was mostly wrong, in the middle of the primary season that he was using Iran for political purposes. That perception, once it had taken hold, took an enormous toll on him politically. And the rest is history. I’ve always been convinced that he was really single minded about Iran and that he didn’t really care that much about anything. He cared about being reelected to be sure, but he disciplined himself to put everything else out of his mind until he could solve this problem.
On the Rose Garden strategy:
The President’s argument, of course, was that he really had to be in the White House, he had to be single-minded about this, and he really didn’t want to be distracted by politics. He took the Iranian thing very seriously. It was the most major crisis of his administration and he didn’t want to fail on it. The politicians, including us, were arguing that you’ve got a real challenge on your hands, you cannot ignore it, you have to be out there. We’ve all seen the Rose Garden strategies, some have worked and some haven’t worked, but it’s a high-risk strategy. Trying to hide in the White House was dangerous because the press would try to penetrate it and see it as a political act, as indeed they did try to do. It’s fairly classic; almost every President now in history has tried a Rose Garden strategy in one way or another. And the arguments for and against it are almost classic.
…Iran was so clearly a national crisis that I think whatever preceded it was largely irrelevant. I think most people were persuaded that it was a genuine national crisis and that the President had to do what he did. Let me just add parenthetically, one of the things we didn’t know about, of course, as this was not at the time of the January debate, but none of us knew at the time of the planning of the abortive raid on Tehran. But that was going on for a long time and obviously required a lot of time and attention on the part of the President. There was only a handful of people who knew about it and it was very absorbing for those people. That’s another reason why he didn’t want to be out of town.
On whether it was a national crisis because of the hostages and emotions, or because of the strategic and political implications:
Well, certainly the hostages, but it had the other implications as well. Iran was a long time strategic ally. We had very sensitive intelligence equipment and agents in place there. It was the only point of stability in an otherwise unstable Persian Gulf. We looked to the Shah and to Iran before that for, having come right on the heels of the collapse of the Shah it added to the instability of that region, which in turn coming on the heels of all of our other Middle East problems was obviously in most peoples’ minds a tinderbox. It had a lot of explosive potential. But the thing that made it dramatic, of course, was the taking of the hostages.
Of course nobody knew how long this would last. But the assumption was that this was a very serious problem that might last a couple of weeks, might even last a month. You didn’t know. Nobody really understood Islam, all the crazy things were happening over there. But there was a growing but gradual realization that this could be a very long-term thing. There was a lot of wishful thinking going on during that time, but nobody at this outset saw this going on for more than a year. Nobody. I don’t think anybody in the country saw it going on for more than a year.
We gradually realized this was going to be a much longer-term situation than we had at first realized. It became clear, once he had in fact won the nomination and Kennedy was still hanging in there, that somehow he had to get out of this moratorium mode. It was wearing thin politically, very thin politically. And whatever effect it had in the primary season, you could not possibly carry over to a general election running against Ronald Reagan. It just wasn’t going to wash. So there was general agreement that he had to find a way out of the moratorium.
And I think it was unfortunate the way he finally did it. He didn’t do it exactly the way it was designed for him. But I think he said this problem was not manageable, and was heavily criticized for that. It was an unfortunate use of the wrong word, in those circumstances I think. But in any case, he went out and made one final campaign appearance before the final primary. He had in effect broken it to go to the convention and campaign thereafter. But there was general agreement at that time that he had to break the moratorium.
On Vice President Mondale’s role:
Mondale was very deeply involved in the Iranian thing. His instincts did not differ in any significant way from the President’s. He was as anxious as the President to try to find some way of communicating. When those avenues appeared to be closed off, he was one of the few who was in on the planning of the raid. He was supportive of the raid. To this day he has no regrets about that. I don’t recall an instance where he differed with the President in a significant way on Iranian policy.
Edward Rowny, Special Representative for Arms Control and Disarmament Negotiations
On how the incoming Reagan administration handled the issue during the transition:
While the thirty wise men and women were briefing the President and the Vice President I came across a very interesting paper. It was by Herbert Cohen, not one of the thirty, entitled: “How to Get the Hostages out of Iran.” Cohen, an old friend, had written a best seller: You Can Negotiate Anything. Cohen was invited to brief the President, who liked what he heard.
Reagan offered the paper to President Carter. Carter said he had heard about Cohen’s paper but was not going to do anything about it. Carter authorized Reagan to act on Cohen’s advice. Reagan did so and within an hour after becoming President the hostages were released.
Stuart Spencer, Campaign Advisor
On dealing with the crisis from the campaign:
We had a litany of Carter problems a mile long. We could talk about one every day. We could pick and choose what we wanted. That’s the problem with being an incumbent. And we had the subliminal thing of the hostages hanging over Carter’s head, which we didn’t have to say one word about except “I hope they come home.” Carter had to wake up every morning, “Where are they?” They’re still there.
[CIA Director William] Casey spent his whole goddamn 90 days running around, spies up at every air base. He thought we were going to get this big November surprise where Carter was going to get the hostages released and they’d arrive five days before the election.
My attitude was, that’s the power of the Presidency. There ain’t a damn thing we can do about it so I’m not going to worry other than to congratulate him, which Reagan would have done, if he’d done it. It might have been the difference in the election, I don’t know. But Casey ran around worrying about all that kind of stuff. He came out of intelligence, the OSS community, and that’s the way he thought.
So, yes, Reagan’s attitude was like mine. It was very practical. I can’t do anything about it. I hope they come home. We’ll deal with it.
Richard Allen, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
On learning about a planned second rescue attempt:
When you’re in a position like I was, the foreign policy advisor to the candidate, the coordinator, everybody wants to offload information to you, and a lot of it is worthless. But I was called by a man whom I respected enormously, a big influence in my life, who said that I needed to talk to someone and the someone would be calling me and identifying himself. So after the Anna Chennault experience in 1968, and that interference in the Vietnam negotiations, it was blatant interference to keep the Vietnamese away from the peace table in order to get a better deal from Nixon. I felt really badly about that, and cautious. I recalled the wiretapping ordered by Lyndon Johnson. So I said I wouldn’t meet this guy in my office. I would meet him on a park bench outside Christ Church at 16th and H Streets [across from Lafayette Park].
So I was out there and the fellow identified himself to me and sat down and told me there was going to be a second rescue attempt. He said there had already been loss of life in the practice for it in the western part of the United States, and this is what it is going to consist of, and you need to know this. I remember he left, and I started to walk back to my office a block away at 16th and I, which is where I ran the campaign, out of the Union Building at 905 16th Street, which is my office. I had taken additional space to run the campaign operations because never again would I have tolerated the lax security I experienced in the 1968 campaign, especially with such serious foreign policy issues at stake, in a time of crisis with American hostages in Iran. There are more people there that are trying to get into your trousers than you can possibly imagine, a totally unsecured environment, and they take everybody and anybody who walks in to a campaign office.
I thought about this and I started to walk back toward my office, went back as soon as I got there and I called Brzezinski and said, “I have to see you right away, right now.” And he said, “Okay, come on over.” So I walk across Lafayette Park to his office in the White House, and I was amazed how nothing was going on, it was so quiet in there. Maybe there were a lot of people on vacation, maybe I have my day off by a few weeks, maybe it was July. I said, “Now I want you to understand that I am not interested in you saying anything, I just want you to listen to what I have to say.” And I’d done this without talking to Reagan, either. I said, “It was brought to my attention that there are practice sessions going on for a second hostage rescue attempt, and I have been told that there has been loss of life in connection with this exercise that will lead the second rescue attempt and I’m here to tell you that if you do this, and you succeed, we will applaud you. If you do this and you fail, we will applaud you, and we will not attack you. So I want you to know.”
I said, “I couldn’t sleep if I had this knowledge, and I don’t want to share it with anybody else, but I want you to know that I know. Because if I know it means somebody else knows, and you’re no longer secure in this operation if you do it.” He was about to talk and I said, “Don’t say anything. I’ll see you later, but I wanted you to know that I know this and I wish you well. I hope you get them back.”
On the idea of the “October Surprise”:
… t could be anything, a meteorite striking the United States, whatever it is, who knows, whatever it could be, just something is going to happen in October, a surprise in October. And I got Howell Raines, now the editor of the New York Times, the world’s second most disagreeable human being, to actually to write a story. You’ll find it in the archives about this. He wrote a story about my October surprise group. He said I had an October surprise group, short name OSG. The OSG, he wrote, met regularly, assessed all of these very complex problems, and of course we didn’t meet every day or regularly at all. Occasionally we got together, four or five of us. I began calling it the OSG, October Surprise Group.
He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker and that led ultimately to come back and bite me. In the ‘90s, this all broke again and Gary Sick, the crazy fellow, who promised that he would apologize if congressional investigations proved there was nothing there. Never apologized at all. Tells you all you need to know about him. Promised on MacNeil/Lehrer, as a matter of fact. Caused a lot of grief. Caused about $10 million worth of investigations. The idea that Casey and Bush and I had flown to Paris to petition the Iranians to keep the hostages until after the election is preposterous.
April 25, 1980
President Carter explains the details of the operation to rescue the hostages, which ended with two aircraft colliding on the ground after a refueling operation, killing eight crewmen and several other soldiers.
The Forum Program has hosted a variety of speakers exploring many different aspects of the U.S.-Iran relationship.
Dec. 3, 2007
Dr. Trita Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. In his book, Parsi argues that the most important sources of tension in the Middle East are not the conflicting world views of Iranian and Israeli leaders but are strategic and geopolitical; each seeks hegemony in the region.
May 23, 2007
Fariborz Mokhtari, professor in the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, and an Iranian native, argues that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency is shaky because he has failed to deliver on promises of economic improvement and because his foreign policy incursions have embarrassed and alienated many members of Iran's religious elite.
Sept. 11, 2006
Colonel W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior officer of the U.S. Military Intelligence and U. S. Army Special Forces, was trained and educated as a specialist in the Middle East and served in the region for many years. Now a news analyst on the military and the Middle East, he was the first professor of the Arabic language at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and at the Defense Intelligence Agency he was the Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and Terrorism.
Feb. 11, 2005
Howard P. Hart, a former CIA Clandestine Services officer in the Middle East and South Asia, argues that the United States is involved in a global war against radical Islamic terrorism and a massive counter-insurgency effort in Iraq. For some years, Hart directed the successful insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and served in Iran up to and after the overthrow of the Shah's government.
Sept. 9, 1983
Richard Helms served in the Central Intelligence Agency from 1947 to 1972, becoming Director from 1965 to 1972 and later Ambassador to Iran between 1973 and 1976. In this forum, held at Monticello, he mentions how intelligence has always been a responsibility of the presidents. Starting, as he explains, with the creation of the CIA through the National Security Act of 1947 under President Truman. Ambassador Helms also details the role of the Director of the CIA, the two concepts of how the Director should run the organization, and the role the CIA assumed upon its formation.
NATIONAL DISCUSSION AND DEBATE SERIES
March 25, 2009
More than a generation after the Iran hostage crisis, concerns over whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons is one of the key concerns dominating the U.S. foreign policy agenda. A panel of diplomatic and foreign policy experts – Elliott Abrams, Former Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy; Joshua Muravchik of John Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies; Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, former Ambassador to Israel and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs; and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examined the arguments for and against both diplomatic and military solutions.