The Day the Dark Ages Began

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.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hass said on November 26th, 2007 at 5:57am #

    As Dr Trita Parsi has shown in his book “Treacherous Alliances” (Yale Univ. Press, 2007) any improvement in US-Iran relations is judged by Israel to be a threat to its regional ambitions and strategic value. That is where the problem lies.

    During the Clinton administration, US Sec of State Albright already apologized for the 1953 CIA coup and a representative of the hostage taker apologized for the hostage-taking. But the US and Iran could not get further along because of a simple reason: Israel and the influence-peddling of the ProIsraeli Lobby in Washington.

    The dark ages started in the 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically-cleansed and continue to be by Israel, while the world did nothing then and continues to coddle Israel. As Israel expands and acquires more and more Palestinian territory, its agents in Washington are busy pushing for more wars in the Mideast to suit Israeli interests.

  2. joed said on November 26th, 2007 at 6:36am #

    pardon my lack of education and sophistication but i remember the takeover and i cheered wildly as the american pigs were captured and held; the embassy hostages should still be in prison in iran. maybe i miss the point or tone or meaning of this article but it sounds like a report on the evil iranian students and how their acts in 1979 has created the iraq holocaust. am i being neoconned by this author?

  3. Ian Williams said on November 26th, 2007 at 11:17am #

    Joed misses the point

    sincere people can do things that have dire consequences. Taking over the Embassy was one thing – taking the hostages led to the triumph of reaction – and the NeoCons


  4. HR said on November 26th, 2007 at 12:37pm #

    Joed, you’re not being neoconned, you’re being neoliberalled, neoliberals being those who fully support the goals of the right (starting in earnest with old Woodrow Wilson), while pretending to care about notions like democracy, decency, and equality, for the sole purpose of convincing us commoners that they have our best interests at heart, that we have a choice when going to the polls and participating in the sham that voting has become here.

    The current fad of elevating one of the more mealy-mouthed and ineffectual of our presidents to the level of saint is utter nonsense. Carter was fully committed to going to war for oil, and stood for the needs of his class over our needs. He still backs down whenever he makes a true statement that offends the sensibilities of those promoting the Zionist agenda in the Middle East.

    The idea that Carter could not have sent the monster Shah to some other country for treatment of his cancer is ludicrous. U.K. and other European doctors are just as good as ours. Then again, the murderous rule of the Shah was our creation.

    Carter was nothing but a placeholder, someone to do nothing for 4 years, time enough for the memory of Ford’s unpopular pardon of the criminal Nixon to fade in the public consciousness. Time for the horrors of Vietnam to fade and be replaced by lies about the peace movement that opposed that atrocity.

    Nowadays we are sold the lies that the country needed to heal, that both Ford and Nixon were great men. At the time, the only ones needing healing were the badly wounded right-wingers, which included many in the Democratic Party leadership. The rest of us wanted to see the man on trial in a court of law, not set free. We did not buy into the lie that he had suffered enough, that the disgrace of forced resignation was punishment enough … what about the disgrace of the kid who robs a liquor store?

    By the time of Carter’s election in 1976, the union movement was well into its death throes. Working people had begun their economic decline but weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel, not quite ready to embrace a true monster, like Reagan. That level of ignorance required more time to develop, through the propaganda of the media – which did its job well – through the bellowing of lying politicians who owed their being to the corporate interest. Reagan would have been elected with or without the hostage incident, which only provides a convenient scapegoat for the author, and many others, to advance as the cause for all our current ills.

  5. joed said on November 26th, 2007 at 5:45pm #

    Ian, thank you for the response. i wish i could write as well as you.
    being the human that i am, i will say in my opinion the neocons have always been around. they simply used the “hostage taking” as a way to show the american people how murderous, chaotic and brutal real american “leaders” should be; ergo the iraq-iran war and onward/downward to this moment. Taking the hostages may have been the absolute wrong move morally and legally. but certainly there are better ways to deal with it than murder and revenge and death and chaos. desire for revenge shows a childs mentality and these neocons are very child-like and hate and murder and chaos seem to be their natural inclination.
    But then, i really don’t have the experience, background or education to know that what i am saying here is even in the ball park. except the obvious parts about murder and hate being the cheney/neocon way.
    thanks again for the fine article. it states history in a way i find very interesting.

  6. AJ Nasreddin said on November 27th, 2007 at 7:57am #

    “sincere people can do things that have dire consequences. Taking over the Embassy was one thing – taking the hostages led to the triumph of reaction – and the NeoCons”

    Ian, were you in the US at the time? Carter wasn’t exactly popular. Reagan used the hostage incident mostly as a PR boost at the beginning of his presidency – and only as one of many reasons why Carter was bad. Reagan’s goons (I believe Bush Sr. was one of them) got the Iranians to NOT release the hostages until after Regean was elected. If anything, that suggests the Dark Ages you propose were actually rolling in before.

    I know the “October Surprise” is largely dicredited in the mainstream media – what else is new, eh? I heard about it from many sides – American, French, Iranian. So either it’s a really big urban legend or there is some truth to it. Logically, one might assume the Iranians would have held on to the hostages to see if they could get something out of the Reagan admin (on the idea that Carter wouldn’t win) – oh wait! I guess they got their deal before the election – hmm!?

    Personally, I think the Dark Ages began on 9/11 – that’s the triggering event by which the Patriot Act, which had been around for a long time before, finally got passed, signaling the end of American Democracy.

  7. Michael Donnelly said on November 27th, 2007 at 11:12am #

    Cater welcomed the Shah on advice from Kissinger and Brezinski. Anyone could have foreseen the consequences. What would the consequence be if a US president let Hitler in for cancer treatment, because, you know, the prez “was a strongly moral man”? Acter could have been living up to our disarmament responsibilities under The Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty and we might not have the insane nuclear arms race we have now.

  8. IRAN said on November 27th, 2007 at 5:25pm #

    Let us please look at facts and not fictions.
    There is the So-called Islamic Regime of MULLAHS
    ruling IRAN, along with its MARKETING establishment at
    home, and particularly abroad, with vast Petro-dollar
    revenue, which they spend where, how, for whom they
    want. And, there is the NATION of IRAN which lives in
    POVERTY and tries hard to endure the IMPOSED ECONOMICS
    SANCTIONS, has no energy left, BUT STRUGGLING TO
    SURVIVE. You can see present IRAN in THIS OR THIS And, Iran ,
    what it used to be under the Shah in THIS
    HOWEVER, WAR ON IRAN/IRANIANS IS NOT THE SOLUTION. US was much smarter 50 Years ago. Then, DANGEROUS REGIMES were removed without HURTING the NATIONS in the process. 30 years ago, everything was free, except communism in Iran. Iran was well respected worldwide. Today, MULLAHS intervene and CONTROL EVERY ASPECTS OF LIFE……including bedrooms and washrooms! WHICH ONE IS DICTATORSHIP!!

    Ahmadinejad, MULLAH Khatami, Mullah Khamenei, Mullah
    Rafsanjani, Mullah…… are all members of the same
    Regime, the so-called Islamic Republic. For the
    survival of this Regime, sometimes it is decided by
    the khebregan to have Ahmadinejad, sometimes Mullah
    Khatami, sometimes someone else…
    Mullah Khatami, a crafted Mullah ,deceived IRAN & the world by promises, while travelling to Lebanon, arming the Militia, he invited intellectuals & investment from abroad….fooling the world for the SURVIVAL OF THE REGIME. It is so sad to
    see the world’s approval of this devil and his evil agenda! time
    SURVIVAL. MULLAH KHATAMI reduced women to slaves, to commodities, just to please men. it is disgusting to see, everywhere in current I.R., 16 year old girls with 70+ years old men, used and abused , purchased with a lunch at a CheloKababi for 4000 tomans (4 Dollars), or with an earrings of 10,000 tomans (10 dollars)! It is disgusting to see Tehran as the
    Cosmetic Surgery Capital of the world to PLEASE MEN.It is disgusting to see so many men with so many wives.It is disgusting to see so many businessmen with many households in Iran AND ABROAD WHILE THEIR WIVES IN IRAN COULD NOT GET PERMISSION TO TRAVEL ABROAD. It is disgusting to see female university students, women of all ages, single and married, throw themselves at any
    male monkey coming from abroad. MULLAHS destroyed the Family Structure so dear to all of us 30 years ago. The list goes on. May God open your eyes and give you VISION.

  9. Joe said on November 27th, 2007 at 8:23pm #

    “world for the dark ages they inadvertently ushered in”
    This quote is more appropriate to explain US policy since end of WWII, it took 25 years and two wars in IndoChina to convince US that China is the ultimate power in Eastern-Asia region since antiquity, and now she is gambling it all on wars in Western-Asia with all powerful Persian/Iranian watching in amazements for shear idiocy of US intention, military superiority is not a prerequisite for being powerful as it was evident in US war against Korea and Vietnam and a betting man should bet the same for US Afghani and Iraqi endeavor.
    There is a Iranian proverb comes to my mind, “even a donkey avoids future road potholes when he gets out of the first one”!

  10. Woodyeofalb said on November 27th, 2007 at 11:16pm #

    Suggestion re: October Surprise: read Peter Dale Scott’s “The Road to 9/11” — for instance. Or Robert Parry’s “Secrecy and Privilege”.
    Good to indicate *some* event as “The Day the Dark Ages Began,” but I believe it is earlier. I feel it’s at the time Ford put Bush in charge of CIA, if Mr. Scott’s story is correct. I’d like to hear other surmises.

  11. Mike McNiven said on November 29th, 2007 at 10:43am #

    Well, Carter did not have any right to interfere in the righteous, secular, anti-imperialist/ national-democratic uprisings of 1978-79 and turn it into a counter-revolution! That is another case of US intervention in Iran, after the criminal 1953 coup! Actually, the same CIA agent– Richard Cottam– who was the theoretician of that coup, became Carter’s adviser in 1978 with the mission of turning a revolution into a counter-revolution! Of course, Kohomeini used and discarded Carter –aka October Surprise, very well documented by Bob Parry — to get a better deal from Reagan called :Iran-Contra! Under that arrangement, Israel sent weapons to Khomeini, Khomeini sent cash to the Reagan’s Contra forces which got rid of the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua! Counter -revolutionary Reagan getting help from counter-revolutionary Khomeini at the expense of Palestinians, Iraqis, Nicaraguans, Iranians,…
    For the people of Iran, Dark Ages had happened in 1953 and in 1979 , with the US/UK yet to apologize for them!
    In other words, it did not start with the hostage taking, it started with direct, cruel, criminal, illegal US/UK interventions against the will of the secular majority people of Iran! The same majority that today says: No to a US war/ No to the theocracy!

  12. Mike McNiven said on November 29th, 2007 at 10:56am #

  13. Abdool Badool said on November 29th, 2007 at 3:34pm #

    Regardless of past histories between Iran and US, US administration have to make a decision in regard with either, perusing another set of UN sanctions against Iran, or drop the Iran nuclear case in UN Security council and let the IAEA take over the case.
    IAEA is satisfied with Iran cooperation so far, also Iraqi and US governments are relatively satisfied with Iran cooperation in Iraq.
    If US passes another set of UN sanction against Iran without justified IAEA consent, I’m afraid the whole occupied parts of Middle-East will be back in armed anti-occupation mode in full force, maybe as bad or even worse than this year high rate of skirmishes in Iraq!

  14. NoFool said on December 2nd, 2007 at 6:44am #

    When the Iranian hostage “crisis” happened, I had recently arrived in the US from Central America. I followed the “crisis” on TV’s Nightline. When Reagan magically “rescued” the hostages on his inauguration day, it was plain as day to me that their un-hostaging was 100% staged by the Reagan machine. I recognized right then and there that Carter’s sincere attempts at rescuing the hostages was sabotaged—recall that crackshot helicopter pilots fresh from the Vietnam war got lost and were then shot down. That could only have been a betrayal; no competent pilot or SEAL squad would have made such a blunder.

    Carter was reeling from bad and even evil policies set forth by the previous Nixon and Ford administrations. Carter was not ineffectual; he was hobbled by the utter sickness of the American people who believed then, and still believe now, what is pumped at them by the television media, not to mention the newspapers.

    Had Carter won that election, we would have seen a very different social map emerge in the USA and abroad. Carter was/is not only moral, he is smarter than people think he is. He’s connected, decent, and able to navigate competently the black waters of skulduggery that is the US-corporate political machine. The Middle East and even Iran would be very different places today.

  15. Joe said on December 2nd, 2007 at 10:11pm #

    Fact of matter is that no one seems to be listening when says, she don’t need a nuclear bomb for any purposes.

    One fallacy of current nuclear arm nations is lack of imagination, “Mutual Assured Destruction” is not a exclusive means which only they can muster at will, several dozens nations already have infrastructure and ability to produce and field the other two weapons of WMD by virtue of having Pharmaceutical and Petrochemical industries and R&D, when an individual can threaten a nation with few Anthrax laced envelope then why you can’t assume a nation with all her resources can’t do more when her cities are radiating from nuclear attacks, when it comes to MAD doctrine, it doesn’t matter if it’s done with radiology or biology, either way our planet would be uninhabitable, Peace out!