40 years after hostage crisis, US and Iran remain staunch enemies

Trump, despite his sabre-rattling, does not seem eager for a fight, having told the American people that he is opposed to “endless wars” in the Middle East.
Sunday 10/11/2019
Iranians walk past anti-US graffiti on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, October 15. (AP)
Old grudges die hard. Iranians walk past anti-US graffiti on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, October 15. (AP)

Although in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, US President Donald Trump, in reference to Iran, said the United States has never believed in permanent enemies, the US-Iran enmity has lasted quite a while.

November 4 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the “hostage crisis” when radical Iranian students took over the US Embassy in Tehran and held US diplomats hostage for 444 days. That Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini soon approved this takeover led to a break in US-Iranian diplomatic relations, which have yet to be restored.

That humiliating crisis was etched in stone for most Americans and has coloured their view of Iran, a country that was once a US ally. The hostage crisis ruined the chances for US President Jimmy Carter to win a second term in office and enabled hard-line factions in Iran to move against more moderate factions.

There is still debate among scholars as to what precipitated the hostage crisis. One school argues that it was the decision by the Carter administration to allow the ailing shah to enter the United States for medical treatment, which radical elements in Iran interpreted as an attempt to repeat the events of 1953, when the United States helped to engineer a coup that put the shah back in power.

Another school argues it was a meeting on the sidelines of an international gathering in Algiers between then Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (along with Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi) and Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, that precipitated the embassy takeover.

Radicals in Iran broadcast footage of the meeting on Iranian television to embarrass Bazargan and Yazdi, who were seeking spare parts for the Iranian armed forces. Once the embassy takeover occurred, and Bazargan and Yazdi could not convince Khomeini to reverse his support for the seizure, they were forced to resign.

The latter interpretation seems the most plausible and is indicative of a trend seen in more recent decades. Whenever moderate elements want to ease tensions with the United States, their efforts are scuttled by hardliners who want the “revolution” to continue and are afraid that any rapprochement with the United States would lead to the fall of the regime.

With the bulk of the Iranian population born after the revolution, and with young people upset over strict social codes and their country’s isolation, there was hope that the 2015 nuclear deal would usher in a new, more open era. Indeed, when the deal was announced, there were scenes of young Iranians dancing in the streets of Tehran.

All that has changed. For Iranians, the economic benefits that were to accrue from the nuclear deal did not materialise, especially as US companies were hesitant about investing in Iran even during the last years of the Obama presidency. When Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 and announced very tough sanctions against Iran — including sanctioning European companies doing business with Iran as well as an embargo on Iranian oil exports — hope for a better life faded. Indeed, the Iranian economy has significantly retrenched.

Iran did not moderate its behaviour in the region, as US President Barack Obama suggested it might. Moreover, Tehran continued to engage in so-called proxy wars in several Arab countries and, in more recent months, attacked oil tankers in the Gulf, an unmanned US drone over the Strait of Hormuz and Saudi oil facilities.

Although Iran has continued to adhere to most elements of the nuclear deal since Trump’s withdrawal, it has started to enrich uranium above the limits set forth in the deal. It is engaging in a dangerous game, trying to scare the West into believing that, unless its economy is helped, it will accelerate its nuclear programme.

Many polls until very recently indicated that the Iranian population held the most pro-American views in the region outside of Israel. That view has changed.

The Toronto-based IranPoll, which conducted more than 3,000 phone interviews in Iran, indicated that 86% of Iranian respondents said they view the United States unfavourably. In addition, approval of Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — the two main figures involved in negotiating and supporting the nuclear deal — has dropped from 82% to 42% and 77% to 67%, respectively, over the past three years.

The hard-line commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, has seen his approval rating increase from 73% to 82% in the same period.

A Gallup Poll said about 82% of Americans asked said they hold an unfavourable view towards Iran. This percentage has not changed much over the years.

Although such figures portend continued hostility between the two countries, the only saving grace is that neither country wants a war. Trump, despite his sabre-rattling, does not seem eager for a fight, having told the American people that he is opposed to “endless wars” in the Middle East, and Iranian leaders know their armed forces are no match for the US military.

Hence, 40 years after the hostage crisis, enmity has become the norm but without a hot war.