Here we go again with another round of punching and counter-punching--this time in the bookstalls--on the question of who lost Iran and set the stage for the great American humiliation of the hostage-taking in Tehran.
Frankly, I can wait until after the holiday season. Even with the passage of a year or two, and the opportunity to hold forth at greater length and in greater depth, the battle of the books isn't likely to be much more decisive than the battle in the media and in the 1980 presidential campaign. History will be a long time gnawing on the performances of the shah, Jimmy Carter, the Ayatollah Khomeini and all the rest; valid judgments will take even longer.
But some interesting lessons leap out from a day-to-day recounting of life as a hostage by the young former vice-consul in the Tehran embassy, Richard Queen, who fell ill with what was later found to be multiple sclerosis and was released ahead of the others, in May 1980.
Queen's contribution to our understanding of the event is narrowly focused, with no historical or geopolitical pretenses. The academics, journalists and former diplomats will be analyzing Islam, and the revolution and the conduct of the hostage negotiations--the Big Picture. Queen's book ("Inside & Out--Hostage to Iran, Hostage to Myself," with Patricia Hass), is a hostage-eye view.
Where it is most valuable is not only in its almost diary-form, intensely personal recital of an often grim, and more often simply wearing, experience. What struck me most forcibly was how differently the seizure of the embassy came across from the inside, to an eyewitness and a victim, than it did from the outside to most of us at home in the first few critical days.
One lesson that leaps out from Queen's account is that the last thing you want to apply in the first days of a hostage situation is some set of hard and fast rules: instant ultimatums, a flat and final refusal to negotiate on anything, reflexive reprisals or even loud threats.
What many American politicians saw, right off, was an "act of war," an "intolerable breach of diplomatic norms." There was immediate talk of retaliatory acts of war: bombing ports, mining harbors, a swift and surgical Entebbe- style rescue raid.
Much of what I find back in the news clips spoke of "Iran" having done this, or forcing "Iran," by one means or another, to do that. The underlying assumption was that there existed, in post-shah revolutionary Iran, a government responsible to speak for, and be spoken of as "Iran." That was to become an increasingly controversial question right up to the final negotiation of the hostages' release last January.
But Queen's account is powerfully persuasive that in the first days and weeks, when all sorts of Draconian demands and pressures on the "Iranian government" were being talked up in Washington, the "bunch of kids" who had him captive were beyond the reach of any reliable authority.
Even the "ragamuffin Revolutionary Guard unit" that was supposed to "protect" the embassy, Queen writes, constantly "challenged or ignored" the Iranian police and regular army units. That is to say, the forces that were supposed to head off an assault on the embassy were beyond control--"a group of assorted riffraff from the streets" that spent most of its time "sleeping or horsing around."
As for the "student" invaders (later to become known as "militants" and to be joined by other, more disciplined and sophisticated elements), "they sounded like kids who had just taken over a school and finally had the teachers where they wanted them," Queen recalls.
"I looked at the militants and realized again that they were not playing by any recognizable rules," he writes at one point. As for the possibility of international intervention or some form of diplomatic censure, it was his sense that "even if it came from God himself, (it) would be just a joke to them."
What didn't seem like a joke was the extent to which the student militants were armed and "their fascination with and almost total ignorance of, weapons." Queen's treatment was mindless; he was bound and blindfolded sometimes, pushed and shoved, harangued with revolutionary cant or endless chants of "CIA, CIA, CIA, spy, spy, spy."
If Queen's perception is accurate, one shudders to think of the consequence of any early effort to pound sense into the situation he describes. The safety of the hostages aside, the spectacle of the United States resorting to blockades or bombing--or the Ronald Reagan prescription in his presidential campaign of a 24- hour ultimatum "or else"--would have been that of the "pitiful, helpless giant," writ large.