tv Taken Hostage CSPAN November 3, 2019 10:05pm-10:31pm EST
years, c-span has been giving america unfiltered coverage of congress, the white house, the supreme court. you can make up your own mind. >> 40 years ago, irani and protesters stormed the industry in tehran. next, an author talks about his book, taken hostage, which chronicles their ordeal and examines the u.s. government's first encounter with radical islam. >> i think the hostage crisis really set the tone for our
the soviet union was trying to foster a communist insurgency. i don't think most american political elites thought too much about the islamic dissidents in that, it was off our radar. part of the reason i wrote the book i did was i was trying to get across how reasonably snow -- reasonably so but -- reasonably so we think about that part of the world. we cheered on what we thought of as capitalist valve meant, we hope for democratic development. we didn't see the green revolution that was coming. the united states and iran has had a complicated relationship for a long time. up until the 1950's iran was a client state of great britain. when britain moved back against colonial periphery, they moved forward. we became very involved in iranian affairs. in 1953, the united states, using its brand new cia helped engineer a coup. and that put into power the shah of iran, who was a good friend of the united states.
the iranian people -- more secular oriented people. they look favorably on the united states. other iranians did not. and really from that forward and 1953 until the islamic revolution in 1979. there were a lot of people who looked at the united states. the phrase became "the great satan." it's interesting to think about when they did not have a good handle on what was happening in iran. it's interesting we had this great relationship in terms of training their new elite. if you are a bright iranian man or woman -- man or woman. mostly men, he probably came to this u.s. university and the starts in the 1960s, think about that.
take about what's happening in the 1960s in the united states. these young iranians are exposed not just to the wonders of the american university but to the dissidents of the 1960s student movement. this radicalized some iranians. it made them think about their own voices and their own set of concerns. this is a complication for america's relationship with iran. the shah of iran did not expect his young people to come home with the political consciousness. he wanted them to come home with a technocratic consciousness, oil engineers, doctors, not threats to his regime. the iranian revolution, like almost any revolution, is a messy affair. it's not clear to those who were revolting what's going to happen. they don't know the end point. they are living to chaos and violence and turmoil. they are all vying for legitimacy.
the iranian revolution starts to break out right at the cost of 1978, 1979. it's not clear who's going to take control. there's all kinds of factions. there's a communist faction. there's a democratic liberal faction. there is a parliamentary republic faction. there's an islamist faction who wants theocracy. all minds are controlled. it's not clear who's going to win. they are all trying to find tools for legitimacy. he is treated broadly as a liberatory figure. it's not clear he's going to become the leader of this country, i think he wanted to be the leader of the country but there were people who were cheering that on. so by the summer of 1979, the theocratic faction is gaining power and prominence but young people in particular were trying to figure out what kind of government they wanted to live
with, who did they want as their leader? how did they stand up from autonomous iran. you start to see, unfortunately, from an america perspective, a decision by some young people to unify the country. they dreamed by creating an external enemy. by unifying the iranian people who were factionalized at this time around one big enemy. we in the united states really almost no one knew about the 1953 coup. we thought of ourselves as a benign progressive force for the iranian people. many of them did not see us that way. we are a potential enemy. we are the ones who kept the shah power, we are the ones who kept the military in power, we
gave the internal force in authority. the students decide to begin to plan let's protest. against the u.s. embassy. one group of students in the many protesting students decide that they are going to make a powerful protest against the u.s. embassy. and we are still even all these decades later not 100% sure what happened or who thought what. there is a strong argument to be made that a group of these students from universities in toronto decide to emulate the african-american civil rights. they are going to have a sit in at the u.s. embassy to demonstrate the legitimacy of the american government's presence in their country. and to witness against american power. when the iranian students decided to make the protest to witness against to plausibly
hold a sit in, i think all along there were some who knew they would go further. what happens is really a catastrophic affair from so many angles. there were thousands of people protesting outside the u.s. embassy. this one group, this group of students decides to climb the fence to come into the u.s. embassy, may be to hold a sit in, maybe to do more. and for the american government it wasn't clear what to do even at that moment of crisis. what's the job of the u.s. marine corps who are supposed to secure the embassy? it's not to face-off mobs of people. we know this from subsequent tragedies. you have to count on local governments to protect the international diplomatic immunity of your embassy personnel. the iranian government didn't do that. those students who jumped the
barricades to climb into the u.s. embassy suddenly realized they kind of had carte blanche to do what they want and instead of just a peaceful fit in, very quickly it devolved into a hostage taking situation in which the americans did not fight back with weapons, they feed into the stake assuming it would be very short-lived. it wasn't short-lived, it was 444 days of the seizure of the u.s. embassy. people understood in the u.s. embassy that trouble was brewing in iran. there was a revolution going on. there'd been attempts to fortify the embassy but you can only do so much. because there was sense there was troubles in iran, the u.s. embassy which had been a massive affair, huge numbers of personnel had cut back to only the absolute necessary folks. i think at the moment of the iranian takeover there was 66 people still working at the embassy.
the people there knew they were in a risky position. they knew this was dangerous posting but i don't think any of them expected what was going to happen to them. this is all occurring in november 1979 almost exactly one year before the 1980 presidential election. jimmy carter is in what we now know is the final year of his presidency. he knew he was going to run for reelection. this was a difficult, arguably catastrophic event, for his presidential administration, i think when it first happened, when he was first alerted he was alerted very quickly to what was going on and probably saw it as an opportunity. so carter was being criticized from several directions. economic reasons, political reasons, cultural reasons. foreign policy reasons. as a weak leader. he knew if he was gonna get reelected he was going to have to convince the american people that he was strong that he was
capable and he could take care of america's business. i think at the very beginning when this took off carter saw perhaps a chance to show leadership. he were these thugs trying to take over u.s. embassy and the midst of turmoil, carter would show strong leadership and negotiate his way out of this and there would be a happy ending. it couldn't have gone worse. carter did something that in retrospect probably wasn't wise. he kind of took upon himself the leadership of solving this what he thought was probably a short-term crisis. and he went out in front, he talked to the american people, he certainly instructed his staff that he wanted hands-on responsibility, this was very carter-esque. he was very much a man who manage the situation before him he was not a delegator like ronald reagan would be down the road. carter hoped that by seizing the
stage, taking care of this trouble, the american people would see him as a strong leader. he basically did everything right, that's the irony of the situation. he quickly got a hold of the iranians, he talked to people who you thought were responsible figures in the iranian government. remember the iranian government is factionalized, not exactly clear who's in charge of what. and ayatollah was still seen as figurehead not hands-on leader. so it was a riddle for the american government. he quickly got a hold of our allies. carter, he's that kind of mind, he kind of step-by-step moves through the process to resolve this issue., what he didn't realize was that there were factions in iran that did not want to resolve the issue. that this crisis was good for the iranian factions wanting to create an islamic state. they wanted to maintain a crisis with the united states.
you've got an american government trying to rationally resolve a very unpleasant nomadic problem and you have a factions with iran, who want to foster and inflame this crisis. to gain legitimacy for the islamic action really trying to sieze total control of the islamic government of the iranian islamic government by that time. to negotiate barriers with very different interests. in terms of the takeover of the u.s. it doesn't happen in one day. it takes place over time. there was a strong islamic presence in those protests. big faction of the revelers near revolutionary movement. the united states government is conscious of that but doesn't see them as a primary threat. we are still thinking soviet union.
we are still thinking the communist party of iran. that's the real fear. iran to become a proxy state of the soviet union. all that oil suddenly under the soviet control. the gulf under control of the soviet union. we never really take as seriously as related to the islamic presence. it was there. the cia and national security council knew. what happens when those students come in and despite the fact that the claim it was peaceful, a few of them at least had weapons. something was off from the beginning about their so-called peaceful intent. they do though at first sees the hostages in the sense thinking it might only be a day, two days, it's not exactly clear what's going to happen. and as time goes on and things don't get resolved, decisions are being made in all parts of the iranian government. one decision that is made is
kind of fascinating. the iranians decide that because they are good islamic people, it is not right to keep women as hostages. so they give matt members of the delegation the right to leave. almost all of them do. so who are these iranian revolutions? they say we are in solidarity with third world people all over the place. they are playing a political game and this is done in full view of the cameras. meanwhile the iranian government is trying to decide what's going
on is this good is this bad inspections in the government are trying to resolve this but the ayatollah's faction, they see this as useful and the students are the ones who say we are the students in line with the ayatollah. they are his people. the iranian people responded positive.not everyone by any means but a lot of iranians are saying, we are showing the american. victim of america now we are in control of america. this gave the ayatollah khomeini faction a lot of credibility, a lot of legitimacy. maybe we shouldn't let them go. so somebody gets stalemate. fairly quickly black americans are given the permission to leave if they chose. women are given the permission to leave if they choose. but the others, no. there's a side story which at the moment of takeover of the american embassy personnel, the great movie that got made by ben
affleck and others, there are six at this point escape and run in the streets that's a whole other story. as hostages escaping, taking root in the canadian embassy. but the others are sitting there blindfolded in squalor at this point not being tortured or anything like that. but by no means being housed comfortably. as the days and start to take on work. for the american government it was a really hard set of decisions as to what is the leverage point, how do you fix the situation? jimmy carter is very methodical thinker, in a good sense. he goes through every possible avenue of consumer a double consideration to release the hostages peacefully so we go from diplomatic talks to sanctions. there's economic sanctions, of course those play a vital role in donald trump's considerations many years later. we use the un, we use every
possible ally we have and they are all on board and you and is on board, nato allies on board, regional allies on board. none of it works. so all along the military has been planning for alternative scenarios. but what is it, five months go on, five months go on before carter finally says, we know ticked through every possible point of pressure and none of them are working. gentlemen, anything else we can do? the pentagon steps up and says, yes sir, we've been practicing we have a plan. the plan is to take a few helicopters, fly them in, having already placed personnel, some of this is still secretly literally to this day don't know every detail people have been placed securely near the embassy grounds to facilitate the release.
the idea was helicopters would fly in, come onto the embassy grounds, at this point there called delta forces special operators who come in and free the hostage. the united states military has tremendous capacities. we don't necessarily have tremendous capacities in 1980, to engineer this kind of clandestine, special operator driven rescue attempt. the israelis had done something like it, not so far before in the earlier 1970s. we trained and learned from the israelis but we never really done anything like this before as a military. it was really hard operating in desert conditions and enemies everywhere. no clear support system. there were a lot of reasons this wasn't going to go well.
from the iranian perspective it didn't go well by the will of allah. what happens is the helicopters began flying into tehran and fly over the desert they have to fly low to escape any supervision and surveillance. and just terrible luck, a dust storm, a sandstorm blows up and does a number on the mechanical components of the helicopters. and just all hell breaks loose. helicopters are grounded, they crash into each other. the operation doesn't even get to tehran, it just fails. and men die. the one military operation that was tried is just a disaster and boy does that hurt jimmy carter's chances for reelection. the iranian hostage crisis arguably never really happily resolves itself in any expeditious way. it goes on month after month after month. so after a year things are still terrible. but a new attempt has been made to bring in a third party mediator, the algerian government.
the algerian government was not friendly to the u.s., but good international players, legitimate international players say we think we can help in this situation. the iranians look at them as fellow revolutionaries. it's a predominantly islamic country although they don't have an islamic government at that point. the algerians kind of go in there like switzerland. go in there and do a really good job slowly working through problems negotiating point by point issues. and if the algerians who get a lot of credit for finally resolving the issue. the iranians play one last hard joke on president carter, they were furious about the military rescue attempt. they refused to allow the algerians resolve the issue and free the american hostages. until jimmy carter is out of office and ronald reagan is sworn in.
it's not until the inauguration of ronald reagan 444 days after the hostage taking finally those americans are less go to come home. it's 1981 and ronald reagan is the president of the united states and it's an interesting moment in world affairs. on the one hand you might think the new reagan administration could look toward this new islamist presence in iran and growing presence in the region and say, we got a new threat. we've got a new challenge. how are we going to resolve this issue? but that's not where ronald reagan's head was at. he is in old cold war warrior committees focused on the soviet union. so the islamist presence, the challenge it presents, is basically put way deep in the background. we have a terrible relationship with iran. we don't resolve it during the reagan administration. we don't recognize their government. we keep as donald trump would tell us later, a huge hunk of their money hostage in our banks.
we don't give it back to them. and we just have a deteriorating back story relationship. and of course the irony is its during the same time that ronald reagan sees opportunity with a different islamist group. the group that eventually we called al qaeda in afghanistan. because he's such a fierce anti-communist warrior, ronald reagan chooses to side with the islamic revolutionaries in afghanistan. provide them weapons, training, money. rather than say, islamism presents an interesting challenge, we don't treat it seriously.we embrace it in afghanistan because they are anti-soviet. they are anti-communist. that didn't turn out so well.
i think the united states began to take more seriously the changing temperament of the middle east. you could make a case certainly by the late 1980s our expertise was growing. we had people who could speak arabic more commonly. we had farsi speakers but we started and treated as a central problem in the u.s. formulations. so when 9/11 occurs in 2001, i think overwhelmingly for americans and even government elites, it was a shock. why has this happened to us? the anger and disrespect that many people in the middle east have for the united states was still a mystery to us. while we certainly increased our capacities we never took it as seriously as we might have that growing crisis in that part of the world. even now 17 years later i think we are still trying to figure out who our friends and who our enemies are in the middle east and how we keep the islamist
challenge manageable. and recent events in saudi arabia have shown we are still struggling to find that part of the answer in the world and it's a real challenge and there's no easy answer for jimmy carter understood way back in 1979. >> american history tv is looking back 40 years on november 1979. when iranian students seized the u.s. embassy in tehran and took 66 americans hostage. hostage whoer worked in the carter administration during the crisis. they joined us earlier today to take viewers calls and tweets. host: it was 40 years ago this week that 52 hostages were taken , an issue that consumed president carter and reshaped american foreign-policy. for the next hour and a half on "washington journal"