View Full Version : British Hostages in Iran: No Repeat of 1979

03-28-07, 09:27 AM
British Hostages in Iran: No Repeat of 1979
By Tracy Dove, Ph.D
Editor, Russia Today

March 28, 2007

Much speculation around how armed and trained British marines let themselves be escorted peacefully into Iranian detention have circulated in the media, and lots of fuzzy question marks are quite visible over the heads of policy-makers, especially the one blinking in neon just above British Prime Minister Tony Blair's forehead. On March 27, Blair announced in a press conference that he was willing to take the affair "to a different level", which if read between the lines tells us that this long-running head of state has learned significantly from Jimmy Carter's mistaken soft line approach to a dissimilar hostage situation in 1979 involving Americans. But the effects that these comments will have in regard to the fate of those soldiers will most likely be negative, unless there is an ulterior motive in the aggressive rhetoric.

Most copious students of diplomatic history already know that boisterous threats are the weakest pillar of a deterrence strategy and are usually ineffective without a show of force. As an example of how far things could go, we can look back at Israel's invasion of Lebanon last year that had as its objective the release of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. After months of bombing and the wholesale destruction of an emerging Lebanon, the military action succeeded only in boosting Hezbollah's opinion rating right before an election, and those kidnapped soldiers' whereabouts are still unknown after the war had come and gone.

But neither Tony Blair, nor Iranian President Ahmadinijad, is up for election; what will become of the British Marines, who are the unwilling guests of the Ayatollahs? Many talking heads in the media are pointing to the hostage crisis of 1979, but the comparison is only superficially pliable once we look at the situation in Tehran at the end of the 1970's.

Bad blood between Iran and the US began in 1953 when the CIA sponsored a coup in Iran that brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power over the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh. This is a fact admitted even on the CIA website, and it remains a dark cloud over the otherwise solid history of the agency's intelligence gathering successes. The problem with Iran was that by 1979 was that the Shah was dying of cancer and for several years he had been conducting repressive tactics against the critics of his regime. Despite the fact that Jimmy Carter promised the Shah 100% backing, an Islamic Revolution occurred in February of 1979 which welcomed the triumphant return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris- and this just one week after the Shah had escaped by air from the angry mobs he had tear gassed for so many memorable years.

Conspiracy theories as to what happened next are numerous, and they range from spuriously factual to right out whacky. We do know that Ayatollah Khomeini was unaware of an Iranian student group's intention of occupying the US Embassy to temporarily protest the arrival of the Shah in the United States for medical treatment in September. These students, who called themselves the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, had acted on their own initiative and studied the grounds of the embassy from nearby rooftops. Since regular demonstrations were commonplace before the embassy gates, Iranian police had become lax in their efforts to cull the excited crowd. The marines, too, had been worn to a frazzle in these days; the embassy had already been occupied once before in that same year, so it wasn't entirely a surprise when a young woman with a hacksaw under her chador was able to cut the gates free and let the angry masses in for a sit-in..

The result was a fiasco that cost Jimmy Carter his re-election. Public outrage in the United States way outpaced the soft approach of the President, who appealed on humanitarian grounds to the captors to release the hostages. This was an unfortunate choice of policy, since diplomatic relations and customs between nations stipulates that embassies are supposed to be inviolable, and Iran had violated this part of international treaties by not reacting. It is also unfortunate that the embassy personnel were not able to destroy sensitive documents that fell into the hands of the radicals, because what was supposed to be an action of a few days and no more became a 444-day tragedy of incarceration and American humiliation, as document after incriminating CIA document was released for the world to see. It stayed this way, despite an aborted rescue attempt, until January of 1981 when the 66 male personnel were freed exactly 20 minutes after Ronald Reagan had taken his oath of office. Interestingly, Reagan had been in Tehran in 1978 with George H.W. Bush- his future Vice President and head of the CIA at the time- and it is believed at this meeting with the Iranian opposition that a tacit approval for revolution was given in return for an anti-communist stance in Iran and a chance at enacting revenge against Carter, who had emasculated the CIA back in 1977.

Tony Blair has a different set of variables on his plate to choose from, and they are much simpler than the smorgasbord of peppery dishes that confused Jimmy Carter in 1979. The most important qualifier here is that these are not diplomats on embassy territory abroad, but soldiers who were careless enough to cross a water frontier and fall into the hands of Iranian marines- without firing a shot. In this light it is more of an embarrassment for Blair than an international incident, and if we turn the pages back to last year's tragedies in Lebanon, we realize that war conducted for the sake of liberating hostages rarely achieves its objectives, so this is not an option, despite the rhetoric.

But if Tony Blair wants to start a shooting war for George Bush, then the situation is perfect. Based on the Iranians' past practices with hostages, their patience is unlimited, and they may wait it out to see what Blair is going to do next.

Tracy Dove, editor of Russia Today, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague.