Commentary Magazine


The Iran Hostage Crisis and the Spirit of Youthful Rebellion

Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

Three decades after hardline students occupied the U.S. embassy and took diplomats hostage for 444 days, many of the now middle-aged revolutionaries are among the most vocal critics of Iran’s conservative establishment, officials and analysts said.

Later on in the story we read this:

But hardline U.S. lawmakers said on Tuesday they were concerned about his selection and called on the Obama administration to do what it can to prevent him from taking up the post in New York.

Notice what the two sentences just quoted have in common? The term “hardline.” It is how Reuters describes militant, violent extremists who stormed a foreign embassy and held its occupants hostage. And it is how Reuters describes members of the United States Congress who raise concerns about such violence. (In this way, Reuters is hardly alone in bludgeoning the English language into meaningless submission. Search the New York Times website for the word “ultraconservative,” for example, to see how the Times applies it to Republican critics of President Obama and Salafi Islamists.)

But there’s a second, more pressing problem with the story that becomes apparent only after wading through the entire piece. Here’s Reuters’ recounting of the hostage takers who are all grown up:

Among the hostage takers were Abbas Abdi, an adviser to Khatami, who in 1998 met former hostage Barry Rosen in Paris.

Abdi made no apology and said the past could not be altered. Instead “we must focus on building a better future”, he said.

In 2002 Abdi was arrested for having carried out a poll in collaboration with U.S. firm Gallup which showed that three quarters of Tehran’s citizens favored a thaw with Washington.

Reform leader Saeed Hajjarian survived an assassination attempt in 2000 by unidentified people but was gravely injured and has not recovered. Khatami’s younger brother Mohammad Reza and his deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh were also among the hostage takers. …

In a comment widely taken as a reference to the turmoil, former hostage taker Masumeh Ebtekar wrote on her blog Persian Paradox: “Those who were all devotees and trustees of the Islamic Revolution … felt that the Islamic Republic is facing a serious challenge to its basic principles and values.”

Ebterkar, who was Iran’s vice-president under Khatami, a post she resumed under Rouhani, was the public face of the siege, serving as a spokeswoman for the hostage-takers.

Aides to reformist candidates were jailed in the post-election unrest, including former hostage takers Mohsen Mirdamadi and Aminzadeh, on charges including “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system”. …

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was also a spokesman for the hostage takers, has also hinted he is no longer a hardliner.

Notice a name missing? Where’s Abutalebi? He is the figure at issue here, not his fellow hostage takers who have “hinted” they don’t hate America quite like they used to. Are we to believe that Abutalebi should be granted his visa and accepted into the company of his fellow international diplomats because people he may have known in 1979 are less violent than they once were?

We often encounter guilt by association, but Reuters wants us to accept Abutalebi’s innocence by association. His American counterparts have stopped taking in shows at CBGB and his fellow Iranians have stopped taking Americans hostage. The events of 1979 should be considered ancient history, apparently. Perhaps the State Department will find this argument persuasive. If so, they are more desperate for “engagement” than most of us ever thought they were.

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