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30 years after the Iran hostage crisis, we're still fighting Reagan's war
Iran watched and learned. They realized that the fixations of the American media could lead to shifts in U.S. policy. They observed how the hostage crisis cost Carter a second term, and they would soon learn that what influenced one administration could be applied to another.
On Oct.23, 1983, a truck loaded with explosives was driven into a barracks building in Beirut housing U.S. Marines, who were there as part of an international peacekeeping force. The driver was killed in the suicide attack, as were 241 American military personnel. Eventually, the bomber was identified as a member of an organization called Hezbollah, which was believed to have been funded and trained by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
By the time even that much was established, Reagan had ordered all U.S. military personnel in Lebanon evacuated to ships of the 6th Fleet, off the coast. A brief time later, those ships received fresh orders and sailed off. There had been no great public support for engagement in Lebanon in the first place, so there was little reaction to the abrupt departure. (The U.S. invasion of Grenada, occurring at the same time, consumed much of the public's attention.)
Iran saw how a devastating attack could force America out of Lebanon, with little outcry back home
and no retaliation for the bombing. And just as hostages had proved useful to Iran during the Carter administration, they would be used again to manipulate the Reagan White House. Dozens of Americans and Europeans were kidnapped in Lebanon and held hostage during the early and mid-1980s. Again, Hezbollah was believed responsible, and Iranian patronage was more firmly established.
In relatively short order, these tactics would draw the Reagan administration into one of the more bizarre covert negotiations in recent history. Among those kidnapped in Beirut was the CIA's station chief, William Francis Buckley. He was held and tortured for 15 months, and at one point he was reportedly taken to Iran, and died in captivity. Reagan's distress over Buckley's ordeal in particular, and over the fate of other American captives, was a factor behind the Iran-contra affair.
Far from punishing the Iranians, Washington arranged for Israel to sell weapons to Iran. The Israeli stockpiles would be secretly replenished by the United States, which was legally prohibited from selling directly to Iran. In return, Iran would free some hostages. Finally, Iran's payment for the weapons would be used to buy arms for anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, thereby circumventing a congressional ban on sales to the contras there. That was the icing on the cake.
It was a fiasco. Reagan, whose staunch opposition to communism around the world would lead to the collapse of the Soviet empire, found his administration embroiled in negotiations with the sponsors of Hezbollah. The scheme clearly circumvented U.S. law, and had others in the administration not taken the fall, it could have led to Reagan's impeachment.
What Iran learned in those years - and we're still absorbing the consequences of those lessons today - is that kidnapping and terrorism are useful weapons against the United States. Ultimately,Reagan's broad-shouldered bravado was no more effective in dealing with Tehran than Carter's mild-mannered diplomacy.
We've still not found our way. Instead of taking military action against Iran, the United States has twice invaded Iran's bitterest enemy, Iraq. And what Iran couldn't do for itself, George W. Bush did for it: Saddam Hussein is gone, and Tehran's influence in the Persian Gulf is greatly enhanced.
There was every reason to celebrate the release of those 52 Americans on Jan. 20, 1981. But what Iran learned then and has applied in the decades since has been costly for the United States. Here we are, 30 years after what we thought was the conclusion of a crisis, still wondering if the end will ever be in sight.
Ted Koppel, who was managing editor of ABC's "Nightline" from 1980 to 2005, is a contributing analyst for "BBC World News America."
Read Ted Koppel's essay "Nine years after 9/11, let's stop playing into bin Laden's hands," and more from Outlook.