30 years later, Iran still holds us hostage
on how a crisis ended, but a war began
On Jan. 20, 1981, 52 American diplomats, intelligence officers and Marines were finally released after being held hostage for nearly 15 months at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Americans saw it as the end of a long national nightmare. Iranians saw it as a successful phase in what the Pentagon would come to call the Long War.
We were wrong; they were right.
On the face of it, the Iranians achieved what they wanted. President Jimmy Carter had labored with key advisers through the last night of his presidency, desperately trying to bring about the hostages' release before Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president. The Iranians, though, were determined to humiliate our 39th president and were not about to free the captives on Carter's watch.
As the television networks began their Inauguration Day coverage, the expected moment of release became the theme. TV screens were split to accommodate parallel images from Washington and Tehran. Just outside the Iranian capital, camera crews were taken to Mehrabad International Airport, where the soon-to-be-former hostages would board their flight to freedom.
At ABC News, where I worked at the time, one of our camera crews had been granted access to the Oval Office the previous night. We had video of Carter, looking grim and exhausted, in a cardigan, consulting with his aides until, quite literally, it was time to dress for the inauguration of his successor. Those images and live shots of desperate diplomacy, followed by the stately run-up to the transfer of power in Washington, played on one side of the screen. The preparations for departure from Mehrabad played on the other.
The Iranians stage-managed the drama down to the last second. Precisely at noon, just as Reagan began to recite the oath of office, the planeload of Americans was permitted to take off. The Iranians' message was blunt and unambiguous: Carter and his administration had been punished for America's sins against Iran, and Reagan was being offered a conciliatory gesture in anticipation of improved behavior by Washington.
That was hardly the interpretation that the Reagan administration put on the event. The new president portrayed the hostage release as a long-overdue act by which the Iranians acknowledged the obvious: There was a new sheriff in town. The feckless days of the Carter administration were over, and the Iranian mullahs had bowed to the inevitable. Indeed, the administration seemed to be saying that Iran's greatest concern was now the possibility of U.S. retaliation for the humiliation of the preceding 444 days.
That last point probably was a part of Iran's strategic calculus. Iran was not then, and is not now, any military match for the United States. Without the American hostages in Tehran, Iran was plainly vulnerable to U.S. power.
Further complicating its position, since September 1980, Iran had been fighting a massive invasion by the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein, the beginnings of a bloody war that would last most of the decade. The United States officially proclaimed neutrality - Henry Kissinger famously observed that it was a shame both nations couldn't lose - but Washington considered Iran the greater threat and covertly assisted Hussein.