Thirty years ago today, American prestige and credibility hit its nadir when we allowed Iran to sack our embassy in Tehran and hold dozens of Americans hostage for 444 days. Normally, that would be considered an act of war, but the newly-formed radical Islamist government in Tehran outboxed the Jimmy Carter administration from November 4th, 1979, until his final day in office — when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini knew he’d have to deal with Ronald Reagan. As the last man captured by the Iranians that day explains, the US practically gave a lesson in Terrorism 101 to a few people who had begun to agitate for a worldwide, radical Islamist dictatorship:
Kupke has long said the hostage crisis set a bad precedent for the United States’ handling of terrorism.
“The summer of ’79, Osama bin Laden graduates . . . and goes to Afghanistan to form his base,” he said. “What do you figure bin Laden is doing when the U.S. can’t resolve the Iran hostage crisis? We let it go on and on and on until 1981.
“What insights do you think we gave him about pulling off terrorist activities? Do you think we taught him something like Terrorism 101?” …
By September 1980, war had broken out between Iraq and Iran; in November, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Eventually, Kupke and fellow hostages were taken to their last stop — a room in the mountains with a picture window and private bathroom — to get ready for their release.
By then, the shah had died and U.S. officials had agreed to release $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets — an action that bothers some hostages to this day.
Yes, we did teach the radical Islamists a lesson thirty years ago today, and every one of the 443 days that followed. We taught them that the Carter administration would allow the US to get led by its nose rather than respond appropriately to an act of war. Unfortunately, that lesson would get reinforced throughout the 1980s and 1990s by Republican and Democratic presidents, in Lebanon as well as in Aden, Tanzania, Kenya, Khobar Towers, and the World Trade Center in 1993. Only after the 9/11 attacks did we try teaching them a different lesson, and now many want to fall back to the same approach that led to the lengthy string of terrorist attacks on the US and its assets around the world.
We’d like to forget the Iranian hostage crisis, except that our policymakers seem intent on forgetting its lessons. That’s why Kupke’s observation should be highlighted today, on the thirtieth anniversary of his abduction and the complete failure of the US to properly address it. If we forget it, we’ll be doomed to repeat it.
Update: It’s also the fifth anniversary of the murder of Theo Van Gogh — and as HA reader/commenter WriterMom says, they are related.
Update II: Don’t know why I wrote November4th. It was, and is, November 2nd.
Update II: Yeah, I had it right the first time. Wednesday is the anniversary; McClatchy is covering it all week. Sorry for the confusion.