A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Hostage Crisis, 30 Years On

Thirty years ago today the US Embassy in Iran was occupied by radical students and the 444-day hostage crisis began. Obviously this is going to get a fair amount of nostalgic coverage, so I won't dwell overmuch on it.

But until the seizure of the Embassy, US relations with the Iranian revolutionary regime, while awkward, were not openly hostile. The Embassy takeover both radicalized the revolutionary regime, pushing it deeper into full clerical rule, and isolated it from the world in ways that the revolution itself had not done. Because the Embassy seizure so clearly violated the basic rules of international diplomacy — which seemed, at the time, exceptional, since the far greater outrages of later years were not yet anticipated — the West was caught off guard. It was the beginning of a long string of asymmetric attacks on Western norms and standards, not just by Iran but by every movement challenging the traditional world order. In the mind of the West, the Iranians were breaking the rules. The students, in effect, said we never agreed to your rules. Thirty years later, we haven't come that far: the nuclear standoff is parallel in many ways: the West says, you can't have nuclear weapons, even though Israel and Pakistan do; Iran essentially says, who made those rules?

The fact that our relations with Iran are still as rocky as they are shows that neither we nor they have really been able to escape the mindset created by the hostage crisis 30 years ago, though there have been gestures from both sides (from Iran during the Khatami Presidency, more recently from Obama) seeking to break out of the straitjackets we have worn in both countries since the Embassy takeover. The timing has been wrong; we aren't there yet. In some respects it seems a long time ago: the Carter Administration is mostly a distant memory, and ancient history to a lot of young professionals today. In other ways the scar tissue still seems fresh, picked raw anew by the nuclear dispute, the Iranian election fiasco, and other recent events.

One of the sadder sidelights of the hostage crisis, I fear, is the argument still heard that if one's adversaries violate international law, that means we don't have to play by our own self-imposed rules either. That's the road to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but it isn't the traditional American way. The rules are there not because everyone respects them, but because they represent who we are, or think we are in our best moments.

Many of the former hostages are going to be interviewed today by the media; it's ironic that many of them were, and are, among our most experienced Iran hands.

1 comment:

Fashionable Earth said...

Thank you for bringing awareness, we also posted about this: http://fashionableearth.org/blog/2009/11/04/30-years-later/