Yesterday, November 4, was the anniversary of the 1979 student takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, where over 50 hostages were kept until Iran released them on the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States 444 days later, perhaps coincidentally, although many argue otherwise.
For many people, the incident is ancient history. But it is one of those seemingly inconsequential, “for want of a nail”, events that change the course of history in profound ways.
To mark the occasion, this weekend I was on PressTV, Iran’s international network, along with Massoumeh Ebtekar, the spokeswoman of the students and known to the hostages, without fondness, as “Sister Mary”. She is still active politically and now a reformist — but totally unrepentant about the hostage-taking. She has just written a book about it, which was published in Canada because she could not find a publisher in the US prepared to take the risk of associating with the wrong side in the “war on terror”; and to be fair, the surviving hostages would almost certainly have litigated any royalties she was due.
She felt that occupying the embassy preserved the Islamic Revolution against American counter-coups. I differed. The student occupation was understandable in the context of American support for the Shah, but totally reprehensible when, unplanned, it turned into long-term hostage taking.
Of all recent American presidents, Jimmy Carter is the one who would have tried to accommodate a democratic regime in Iran. But he was a strongly moral man, and to turn away the cancer-stricken Shah from medical treatment would have been unthinkable. But for obvious reasons of history, Iranian students and Ayatollahs did not think in terms of American presidents having moral qualms. They were happier to come to a deal with Ronald Reagan.
By ensuring Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter, the hostage crisis ushered in one of the most regressive eras in US history. It also represented the end of the New Deal and Great Society era, and the resurrection of Gradgrindism as a philosophy in the domestic governance in the US. Since then, the rich have prospered beyond measure while working Americans have, if they are lucky, trodden water.
And it was not only at home in the US that it marked the end of any sense of community. Globally as well, it heralded the triumph of American militarism and unilateralism.
We are still living with the unintended consequences of the bushy tailed, bright-eyed enthusiasm of those Iranian students, and in Iraq, Americans and Iraqis alike are dying with them.
The crisis had its results closer to home as well. The Iranian revolution, which had joined more secular democratic and Islamist elements, became the hybrid theo-democracy it is now, with the Ayatollahs able to over-rule democratically elected politicians. Ms Ebtekar thinks this is a good thing. Many, not necessarily pro-American, inside and outside Iran would differ, and both the new regime and the hostage crisis left Iran pretty much friendless when Saddam Hussein invaded a year later.
The Iranian anchorwoman wanted to know if I could think of anything positive to conclude from the incident. The one small point I could think of was that it showed Americans how unpopular abroad their government’s policies were. But as we saw after 9/11, there is strong trend in the US, in fact, the one now in power, that feels fortified by foreign disapproval. And, after all, taking diplomats hostage violated international law, as indeed the US forces have done by taking Iranian diplomats prisoner in Iraq — despite the protests of the Iraqi government.
In the past the US has found it convenient to overlook direct and indirect attacks against it, such — for example — Franco’s past as a Nazi ally, the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, not to mention the Korean and Vietnam Wars. If the embassy hostage issue were brought up in arguments against talking to Iran, after 28 years, it would be an excuse, not a reason — and not a very good one either. Perhaps Washington could apologise for the Shah, Tehran for the embassy — and the students to the world for the dark ages they inadvertently ushered in.