NPR

Is It Time To Get Over The Iran Hostage Crisis?

Marking 30 years since the conclusion of the Iranian hostage crisis, commentator Ted Koppel argues that America's reaction to the standoff proved to the world that terrorism works. But author Stephen Kinzer says it's time for the U.S. to move on and heal three decades of sour relations.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

On this day in 1981, the release of American hostages from Iran set off both tremendous relief and thanksgiving nationwide. I was among the reporters on the scene a few days later when they arrived stateside and remember writing that the word festooned would forever be defined by the yellow ribbons that decorated every tree and lamppost on their route between Stewart Field, where they landed, and the United States Military Academy at West Point, where the 52 spent time with their families.

Thirty years later, commentator Ted Koppel wonders about the lessons learned from the hostage crisis in Washington and Tehran. In a piece that will appear in the Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section, he argues that even on the face of it, Iran achieved what they wanted and concludes, three decades later, continues to apply the same lessons.

What's the legacy of the hostage crisis? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, will the expected secession of Southern Sudan set a precedent that will redraw the maps of Africa and Asia? But first, America held hostage, and we begin with NPR news commentator Ted Koppel. He joins us from his home in Maryland.

Ted, always nice to have you on the program.

TED KOPPEL: And, as always, good to be with you, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And, of course, people will remember "America Held Hostage" was the title of the television program before it changed to "Nightline."

KOPPEL: And it seemed like an extravagant, indeed, an outrageous title at the time, "America Held Hostage." Was America really held hostage, or was it just a few dozen American citizens?

It turned out, over the course of those 444 days, that in many respects, America itself was held hostage. Certainly, President Carter was held hostage. He ended up - and I think we need to remind ourselves, Neal, a couple of oldsters like you and me, that there are many millions of people alive today who were not alive at the time.

But Jimmy Carter, after the hostages were taken, was in the midst of an internal race against Ted Kennedy for the nomination of the Democratic Party, and he announced that the hostage crisis, in effect, was the essential part of his agenda.

The White House announced something called the Rose Garden Strategy, which said, in effect, the president wasn't even going to be able to leave the White House, so important were those hostages to him.

I recall him saying they were the first thing he thought about in the morning and the last thing he thought about at night - from a humanitarian point of view, a wonderful expression of his own sentiment. From the point of view of the leader of the United States, however, it said to the Iranians: Boy, we've got you exactly where you want you.

And on that day that you were just citing, which was 30 years ago today, the Iranians deliberately held the hostages on the tarmac at the airport outside Tehran until, quite literally, the very second that Ronald Reagan raised his hand, swore the oath and became president of the United States.

Under no circumstances were they going to give Jimmy Carter just the sheer pleasure, the joy, the fulfillment of seeing the release of those hostages on his watch. It was going to be on President Reagan's watch.

And the point I'm really making is there was a sense at that time, well, we've finally gotten rid of that sort of wimpish, feckless Jimmy Carter. Now we've got this broad-shouldered Ronald Reagan, a man you do not screw around with. He is now president of the United States.

And you could even hear it in that soundbite that you played at the top of the program, Neal. You know, I mean, he was saying to Congress: Those people were prisoners. They're finally coming back to freedom. And the very tone of his voice said: And don't anybody dare do that to us again.

CONAN: Yet the conclusion that you come to in this piece in the Washington Post that's going to appear on Sunday is that, in fact, Ronald Reagan's muscular talk achieved very much the same end as Jimmy Carter's rather softer diplomacy.

KOPPEL: In some respects even less. Only two-and-a-half years later, in 1983, October of 1983, President Reagan had sent U.S. forces to participate in an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon to help keep the peace that had finally been - I mean, it was a very fragile peace that had been established in their civil war.

And one day, a truck, posing as a water truck, drove up to the U.S. Marine barracks and made its way in, crashed through the gate. And we had what, until then, we had never seen before: a suicide bomber, a man who drove in, exploded that truck, which was filled with explosives, killing 252 American servicemen.

You would have thought that the reaction from President Reagan would be extraordinary, that at some point or another, there would be retaliation. In reality, what happened is that all Americans were withdrawn from Lebanon almost immediately. They were put on ships of the Sixth Fleet that sat off the coast of Lebanon for a while, and there was a certain expectation that something was going to happen.

One day the ships they were there. The next day they were gone. Nothing happened. And, indeed, it was all sort of lost because this was at precisely the time that there was, in fact, an invasion by U.S. forces of a little Caribbean island called Grenada, 100,000 people, 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela.

You may recall there was concern because there were some American students down there at a teaching hospital, and the fear was that they would be taken prisoner and held hostage. So in Grenada, muscular reaction. In Lebanon, in Beirut, in response to that explosion, absolutely nothing.

And what was discovered during the investigation that took place after the explosion was the existence of a new organization called Hezbollah. And Hezbollah, it turned out, had been created by, financed by, trained by the Iranians. Nothing ever happened to them.

CONAN: And it would be President Reagan who would later tell us that, essentially, to paraphrase his terminology, that he went to bed every night and awoke every morning thinking about American hostages, this time in Beirut.

KOPPEL: And indeed, the argument can be made, and I think should be made, that the Iranians were expecting retaliation from President Reagan and, because of that, instructed Hezbollah in Beirut to begin picking up, as you correctly put it, hostages.

Kidnapping was all the rage in Beirut in the mid-1980s following that explosion at the U.S. Marine barracks, mostly Americans, some Europeans. All in all, I think more than 90 people were kidnapped and hostage, among them the CIA station chief, a man by the name of William Francis Buckley, who was held and tortured for 15 months, was transferred to Iranian control, was sent to Iran, and the last time he was ever seen again, he was dead already. Somebody released a video of Colonel Buckley, who had been hanged, and it was a video of his corpse slowly twisting on the rope.

Again, not only did nothing happened, but what flowed out of that, and I'm not quite sure where you want to go right now, Neal, so let me pause for a second, but that led to the Iran hostage - I mean Iran-Contra.

CONAN: Iran-Contra, where arms, the United States, indirectly at first and then directly, provided arms to Iran, and, well, that is a complicated story. But suffice to say, you conclude that, in fact, Iran and not just Iran has determined that spectacular incidents that involve even relatively small numbers of people can rivet the attention of the United States and paralyze it for quite some time.

KOPPEL: I think that our enemies have recognized - and perhaps the Iranians were the first. Clearly in recent years, there have been many, many others, but I think the Iranians were the first to recognize, over the course of what we came to call in America the Iranian hostage crisis that what in many respects is our greatest strength, and that is our humanity and the fact that we care about the fate of the individual, is also one of America's great vulnerabilities, that by jeopardizing the safety of, the lives of a handful of Americans, you can influence American foreign policy.

That was an extraordinary realization and one, of course, that has been used to terrible effect by al-Qaida in more recent years.

CONAN: We're talking with Ted Koppel about the Iranian hostage crisis and its legacy. It ended 30 years ago today. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Walter's(ph) on the line from Philadelphia.

WALTER (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Hi, Walter, go ahead, please.

WALTER: All right. You know, I'm frustrated about this level of discussion about Iran in particular and the hostage crisis because of all the programs Ted Koppel did on the Iranian hostage crisis and "America Held Hostage," not once do I ever remember him linking the Iranian hostage crisis to the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1954.

It was always as though the Iranians were some kind of people unhinged from any kind of reality or anything like that. They were just crazy people doing something arbitrary, when in fact they had a - not only a remembrance but a sizable grudge against the United States for that overthrow of whatever fledgling democracy they had at the time. Mr. Koppel never talked about that.

CONAN: The CIA in 1953. I'm sorry - just the CIA and the British secret service in 1953 did overthrow Prime Minister...

WALTER: That's right, but...

CONAN: Hold on, Walter, and let's give Ted a chance to respond.

KOPPEL: Actually, Walter, I thought you were going to come at me from another direction, and I'll say it for you. But to respond directly to your point, you are absolutely right in what you say, but you are wrong in saying that we never covered that on either "America Held Hostage" or "Nightline."

We covered it not once, we covered it several times and made that point that, historically, the overthrow of a freely-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, by the MI6 and CIA, with Iranian help, led to the installation of the shah and caused much of the bitterness that the Iranian people had against the United States.

But there's another point that I would like to make, that I thought you were going to criticize me on. I'll do a mea culpa when we come back.

CONAN: Stay with us, then, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Ted Koppel is our guest as we discuss 30 years after the end of the Iranian hostage crisis. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The Iran hostage crisis, a 444-day ordeal that still influences relations with Iran, ended 30 years ago today. We're talking with Ted Koppel this hour, who provides commentary for this program from time to time. We want to hear from you. What's the legacy of the Iran hostage crisis?

In a moment, we'll also hear from Stephen Kinzer, whose latest book is "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future." We also want to hear from you. What's the legacy? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Ted, I think you owe Walter a mea culpa.

KOPPEL: I don't owe Walter a mea culpa. I thought Walter was going to say this, but I owe everyone out there a mea culpa in this sense: Clearly, I mean, years after the hostage crisis, I ran into Jimmy Carter at some state event, and President Carter said to me: There are only two people who really benefitted from the hostage crisis. One was the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the other one was you, he said, speaking to me.

And what he meant, of course, was that my career at ABC News was made by the fact that after Frank Reynolds left the program I started doing "America Held Hostage" which became "Nightline" and which I then continued to do for the next 26 years.

But during those first few months, when we did the Iran hostage story night after night after night after night, that, I would argue in retrospect, is one of the things that caused the Iranians to realize that they had the United States exactly where they wanted us and that America's passion for the fate of these hostages and the intense focus that we in the media, no one less than I, and that's where the mea culpa comes in, focused on the hostage crisis and on the fate of the hostages, that that gave them extraordinary power that they could use against the United States. And the only point I'm making is that they're still using it in similar fashion to this day.

CONAN: Let's go next to Peter(ph), and Peter with us from Rochester in New York.

PETER (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

PETER: Yes, I was wondering if Ted could describe or explain a little bit about the Reagan campaign's negotiated deal with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after he was sworn into office.

KOPPEL: Yeah, I do not believe that for one moment. I'm familiar with those charges, and I can assure you that we looked into them, and I don't believe them.

PETER: What was it that you found?

KOPPEL: What we found was no evidence to support that charge.

PETER: OK, well, I'm going to have to do a little bit more research because I believe that there was some sound evidence that showed that they did negotiate the deal, and they did hold the hostages until after Reagan was sworn in.

CONAN: Peter, I have to add that people other than Ted have looked into this, and so far as I know, no reputable journalist has come up with any proof or...

PETER: I wish I could remember the name of the person that looked into it and had the evidence to prove that it was actually true.

CONAN: Well, history suggests, thus far at least, that it was not. But thanks very much for the call.

PETER: Well, that's also coming from the mainstream media that also is responsible for allowing us to get into Iraq on lies as well.

CONAN: Well...

PETER: So I question the mainstream media and their position on a lot of things.

CONAN: Well, thanks for that support for my integrity. Thank you, Peter.

Ted, we also have to remember, there were a couple of other things going on 30 years ago, when the hostages were released. This was just a couple of months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This was also in the midst of a bloody war between Iran and Iraq.

KOPPEL: It was, and here, too. I mean, if you want to look for reasons that the Iranians have grudges against the United States, here's a perfect one. In the war, Saddam Hussein, his land forces invaded Iran, and for most of the 1980s, that land war continued. Overall, I think roughly 800,000 Iranian and Iraqis were killed.

Publicly, the United States took a position of neutrality. Henry Kissinger famously said: It's a shame they can't both lose. But behind the scenes, covertly, the United States was actually supporting Saddam Hussein because it considered Iran to be a greater threat to the national interest of the United States than Iraq.

And perhaps the greatest irony of all is that here we are, Neal, 30 years after the fact, and because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003, ordered by President George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein has been overthrown, and Iran has achieved, through our efforts, what it was unable to achieve all those years of fighting Iraq by its own efforts.

CONAN: Ted, we know you have to run. As always, we thank you for your time.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, former "Nightline" news anchor. Today, he occasionally comes on this program as a commentator for NPR News and joined us from his home in Maryland.

Again, the story that he wrote, the piece that he wrote, will appear in the Washington Post's Outlook section on Sunday.

Stephen Kinzer is a foreign correspondent whose most recent book is "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future." In a piece he wrote that appeared today on The Daily Beast, he says it's time to get over the hostage crisis and start to improve relations with Iran.

Stephen Kinzer joins us on the phone from his office in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. STEPHEN KINZER (Author, "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future"): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And as you go back to this moment 30 years ago, you say that it has continued to poison U.S.-Iranian relationships ever since, to a degree that, well, the facts don't justify.

Mr. KINZER: Emotion is always the enemy of wise statecraft, and the hostage crisis has left an emotional overhang, an emotional legacy in the collective American psyche that puts Iran in a unique position.

American governments have other enemies, and Americans have other countries that we don't like. We don't like Cuba. We don't like North Korea. We don't like Myanmar. There are others. But those dislikes don't have this raw, intense edge that borders on hatred that many Americans and many American political leaders feel or say they feel for Iran.

What's the difference? I think the difference is the hostage crisis. Iran has done a lot of things that we don't like in the world, from its nuclear program to its support of militant groups in the Middle East, its anti-Israel rhetoric, its repression of its own citizens at home.

But that wouldn't be enough to get the United States into what has now become the most dysfunctional relationship in the whole world. There are no two countries that have been at each other's throats this intensely for this long.

Each one of them, on both sides, would tell you it all began with one bad moment, but they don't agree on what the moment is. For the Iranians, everything went bad in the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh, when the CIA came in, as you mentioned earlier, and overthrew the last democracy Iran ever had. And for the Iranians, the hostage crisis was just one of many long-term effects of the 1953 coup.

But the Americans see it differently. For us, all U.S.-Iran relations begin with the hostage crisis and end with the hostage crisis. We are still in the grip of that experience.

CONAN: Yet there's been plenty since the end of the hostage crisis that has poisoned relationships with Iran, as you suggest not just their support for the groups Hezbollah and Hamas, the bombing of the Lebanese - the Marine barracks in Lebanon, as Ted Koppel argued. From their point of view, our support of the Saddam Hussein regime, the reflagging operation in Persian Gulf that allowed American, so-called American tankers to go up to Kuwait and collect oil, and then the United States, one afternoon, got tired of the Iranian navy and sank it.

Mr. KINZER: It's true. There have been a number of other political episodes. The Iranians would point to other things like the shooting down of a civilian aircraft, which (unintelligible) said was a mistake, and a series of other episodes that seemed like outrages to them.

I can see that the United States has some geopolitical reasons to be angry at Iran. But it wouldn't be this intense without the hostage crisis, and I can tell you this: When you talk to people in the CIA, in the Defense Intelligence Agency and in other security agencies of Western countries - and I've just come back from Europe, where I've been doing some of this - you get a widespread consensus that reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran would be a great strategic breakthrough for America.

Iran and the U.S. have many long-term strategic benefits in common. Iran is the bitter enemy of al-Qaida and Taliban because of the Sunni-Shiite split. Iran has a great ability to help stabilize Iraq. Iran can do a lot to help stabilize Afghanistan also.

So the people that study strategy only would love to get past this emotion and get past this history, as we have with other countries, but political leaders are not able to do that because of the emotion that still grips Americans as a result of the hostage crisis.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Paul, and Paul joins us from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.

PAUL (Caller): Yes, well, we supported the Iranians until the overthrow of the shah, and then the Iranians became the enemy. So we supported the Iraqis. And we supported the Iraqis until Saddam Hussein became the enemy, and it's led up to what we have now.

Ted's analysis is devastating in regards to the reaction of the United States to the bombing in Beirut and the other things he brought up in regards to America's response or lack thereof.

CONAN: Or lack thereof. Again, Iranians might not see it that way, Stephen Kinzer, but from the American point of view, these are terrible things that have yet to be avenged.

Mr. KINZER: It's certainly true that we were a great supporter of the shah, and I think that's part of what led to the anti-American sentiment in Iran that helped produced that - not just the overthrow of the shah but the emergence of an intensely anti-American regime.

During the Iran-Iraq War, we did support Saddam Hussein militarily. That's what began our death embrace with Saddam that spiraled down into the situation we have in Iraq right now, and you can also add that the Islamic revolution and the upheaval in Iran also was a factor in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan, which...

PAUL: Absolutely.

Mr. KINZER: ...then brought us into Afghanistan and led us to the situation we face now.

I would just add one other observation, though. I said that the 1953 coup is what many Iranians believe was the beginning of how everything went bad, whereas the hostage crisis is what Americans put in that category. But in my visits to Iran, I have noticed one thing that in the younger generation of Iranians, particularly those people that participated in the protest against the 2009 election results, the bitterness over the American role in overthrowing American democracy in 1953 is beginning to fade. It's not as intense as it used to be as a new generation emerges. But our emotion about the hostage crisis, which happened 30 years later, has not faded yet.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the phone call.

PAUL: My pleasure. Thank you for taking it.

CONAN: And, Stephen Kinzer, if the anger in Iran over the Mosaddegh coup is beginning to cool, you think that Iran would then be reciprocally positive if the United States could manage to somehow get over its anger with the hostage crisis?

Mr. KINZER: Well, first of all, the very vibrant, open, secular, worldly nature of Iranian civil society is not reflected by that repressive and paranoid regime. So you have to deal, of course, with the regime. I do think that there is a prospect for negotiation with Iran seriously but not if we continue following the policy we're following now.

Our current policy is Iran must negotiate on the one issue that we care about, which is the nuclear issue, and must come to a conclusion that we find satisfactory, which the Iranians would call surrender. That's not a promising avenue for negotiation.

But if we were to do with Iran what we did with China back in the 1970s and agree to open the agenda to allow Iran to bring its grievances to the table as well as negotiating our grievances, then I think you might have the prospect for some kind of negotiation in which both sides could make concessions.

But the only way to do that would be to allow both sides to make a list of their agenda items and not insist, as we are doing now, that the negotiations be limited only to the nuclear issue.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Kinzer. His latest book "Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we want to get another caller on the line. And in a moment, we will.

Stephen Kinzer, the difficulty with some of this agenda opening is that one of the things that Iran has been accused of - and many people find it this way -is just spinning out the negotiations on and on and on and on, a little concession here, and then cutting them off and one break after another, until they've achieved a nuclear weapon. If that's the goal, the United States - are you saying the United States should accept that Iran is going to become a nuclear power?

Mr. KINZER: I don't believe that, no. I wouldn't like the U.S. to accept that. I don't think that's necessarily going to be the end of this process. And even if it is, it's too early for us to accept that. We should be opposed to the emergence of any more nuclear states.

Nonetheless, I think that the position that you mentioned is really a position that reflects the American point of view. Other countries that are friends of the U.S., like, for example, Turkey and India, which are very close to Iran and have had relations with Iran going back many, many centuries, have been begging the United States to change its approach to Iran. They say that if we make some kind of a gesture, there is some kind of a negotiation and perhaps even a grand bargain possible.

We have rejected that advice, so we don't even know what Iran would want from us in exchange for giving up its nuclear program. We haven't even gotten to the point of asking them that yet. So fixated are we on our insistence that they meet our predetermined conditions.

CONAN: Let's get Jorge(ph) on the line. Jorge is with us from Concord in New Hampshire.

JORGE (Caller): Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JORGE: Oh, good. In regards to Americans' passion for the individual or even a group of people and the ramifications of helping them at consequence to the whole, I think that staple should always remain regardless.

I mean, you look at our own stories in America where, you know, one thing happens to a senator and it becomes a huge, you know, impact on the nation. It doesn't even have to be ours, like if it's the miners, we see a small group of people that overcome, and people go to risks for those things. And that's something that's completely admirable; and in the end, can be reflected upon when negotiations, say, do come through. And we want to set up a good place. I think that's something that will always be held on to regardless of, you know, if it is our weakness or whatnot. It will end up being a strength, for sure.

CONAN: Stephen Kinzer, is that - just a few seconds left. But is that compassion for a few people in danger a strength or a weakness?

Mr. KINZER: I tend to go with what Ted Koppel said earlier. I do think that other countries and leaders have realized that this is our weakness, and they come at us this way. But American leaders also play on this. Americans are a very compassionate people. We hate the idea that somebody somewhere is suffering. We always want to go and help them, and American leaders who want to intervene in other countries in the world for other reasons always cloak their interventions in ways that are meant to appeal to this compassion that Americans feel in our hearts. So it isn't just outside groups that play on this part of the American psyche but our own leaders.

CONAN: Stephen Kinzer, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KINZER: Always a pleasure.

CONAN: Stephen Kinzer's piece in The Daily Beast is called "Time to Get Over the Iran Hostage Crisis." He joined us by phone from his office at Boston University where he teaches international relations.

Coming up, Sudan, sovereignty and secession. When is breaking up the best option? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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