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What Caused the Iran Hostage Crisis?

Today marks the 34th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by revolutionaries answering to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The United States had never intended to break diplomatic relations with Iran. The embassy seizure occurred, after all, more than nine months after Khomeini’s return to Iran. During those nine months, diplomats actively sought to reach out to the new regime and to determine and report back on which way the revolutionary winds were blowing. There was a widespread belief that revolutionary fervor had nearly burned itself out, and that a revival of relations was inevitable. Indeed, Steven Erlanger, a young journalist who would rise to become The New York Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent, reported just a day before the embassy seizure arguing that while the revolution was not over, “the religious phase is drawing to a close.”

The hostage crisis was not inevitable, however. I examine the episode in detail in my new book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups. Rather, it was the direct result of forcing diplomacy upon a faction-ridden regime. Visiting Algiers on November 1, 1979, Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan at a reception to celebrate Algerian independence day. Brzezinski told Bazargan that the United States was open to any relationship the Islamic Republic wanted. Brzezinski may have been well-meaning, but his initiative was a case study in how ill-timed diplomacy worsens relationships. Rather than grasping Brzezinski’s outstretched hand, Iranian revolutionaries decided to slap it away in order to reinforce their ideological credentials. The day after newspapers published a photograph of the Brzezinski-Bazargan handshake, outraged students at first protested Bazargan’s alleged betrayal of the revolution, and then decided to put an exclamation point on it by seizing the American Embassy.

Khomeini endorsed the move. “Our young people must foil these plots,” he declared. The embassy seizure was initially just supposed to last 48 hours, but a Carter national security council aide leaked word that military options had been taken off the table, and the hostage-takers, according to subsequent interviews, identified that as the moment when they decided to increase their demands and keep the embassy for the long haul.

On the 30th anniversary of the embassy seizure, Khamenei warned Obama not to place his hopes in political reformers. Reformists “can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country. They should know this. The Iranian nation resists,” Khamenei declared. Factionalism inside Iran is no better today. While Khamenei’s commitment to President Hassan Rouhani is debatable—for every statement that seems to endorse Rouhani, there is one against him—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) remains as hostile as ever to the United States. So too does Iran’s intelligence ministry, to which Rouhani is close and which has a history of terror sponsorship independent of the IRGC.

If the United States puts hope before change in Iran, however, it will in all likelihood get burned just as it was 34 years ago and as Khamenei has subsequently threatened. It is the job of the Iranian government to put the IRGC in the box if peace will really be possible. Khamenei shows no sign of doing so, or even wanting to do so. To rush headlong into diplomacy when the Islamic Republic is a house so divided risks a great deal. Had it not been for one rushed handshake just over 34 years ago, after all, the United States and Iran may not have been set down a path from which they have been unable to recover.



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