All Fall Down
The Iranian hostage crisis damaged the prestige of the United States throughout the world and also played a crucial role in destroying President Jimmy Carter’s hopes for reelection. Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council during this crisis, has come forth with a valuable account of the making of American policy toward revolutionary Iran. By treating both the revolution that toppled the Shah and the hostage crisis itself, this comprehensive work gives the reader the complete story of America’s Iranian imbroglio.
On November 4, 1979, militant Iranian students seized control of the American Embassy at Teheran; as a result, fifty-two members of the embassy staff would be held hostage for 444 days. The pretext for this violation of traditional concepts of diplomatic privilege was the American government’s decision to admit to the United States the recently deposed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
This event raises some questions. Why had the United States decided to admit the Shah? Sick sees the chief motive for admitting him as the humanitarian one of permitting a seriously ill former ruler to gain access to advanced medical treatment. Sick also concedes that a desire not to be seen as knuckling under to Iranian pressure may have played a part in the decision. Why was the United States Embassy staff not reduced to a skeleton crew, and why were security arrangements at the embassy itself so lax? Sick sees bureaucratic inertia as the cause for the staff bloat at Teheran; he attributes the failure to improve security sufficiently to an excessive faith in the good intentions and power of the moderates within the revolutionary government and to an inability to imagine just how willing Iranian revolutionaries were to challenge traditional notions of international law.
During the period from November, 1979, to April, 1980, one American negotiating approach after another failed to bring about the release of the hostages; the author skillfully evokes for a reader in 1985 the acute sense of frustration and helplessness that pervaded American policymakers at that time. One source of this frustration, Sick suggests, was the fact that the Iranians with whom the United States was negotiating at that time held no real power; the question of ultimate authority in revolutionary Iran had still not been settled. Sick persuasively argues that the Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the idol of the demonstrating mobs that had helped topple the Shah, cleverly exploited the hostage crisis to eradicate the influence of Westernized moderates within the new regime; only after having won this political struggle would the Ayatollah even consider the hostages’ release. Sick’s account of this discouraging period is, because of his inside knowledge of Washington policy debates, superior to that found in journalist Pierre Salinger’s America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations (1981).
Was the American negotiating position weakened by the excessive public attention paid to the hostage crisis? Sick believes that downplaying the crisis might at least have limited the damage done by the hostage-taking to America’s image as a world power. At the same time, he does not think that this approach was politically feasible within the United States, or psychologically possible either for the president of the United States himself, or for the high-level officials of the State Department, many of whom had known the hostages personally as friends and colleagues.
Sick reviews in detail the debates that led to the decision to send the ill-fated rescue mission to Iran in April, 1980; in doing so, he offers some new insights into the policy-making process. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who would resign in protest against the decision, was absent when the decision was made; he had lost influence as a result of the blow dealt to his policy of conciliation by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In discussing the decision to send the rescue mission, Sick succeeds in instilling in the reader a greater empathy for the extremely difficult choices faced by policymakers at that time. His argument that the mission itself was not irremediably flawed in concept but failed merely because of errors in execution is much less convincing; it is contradicted by the evidence he himself offers of how little experience Americans had in carrying out successful commando raids, how complicated and risky this particular operation was, and how pitifully inadequate was its planning and preparation.
Sick’s account of the negotiations that did succeed, the ones conducted through Algerian intermediaries between September, 1980, and January, 1981, is a good overview, although a bit too brief. For a more detailed discussion of the final talks, the reader should consult the relevant essays, written by American participants in these talks, in American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis (1985), by Warren Christopher and others.
How did Iran become such a cauldron of revolutionary anarchy that the taking of Americans as hostages became possible? Sick is by no means the first to write about American policy toward Iran from Carter’s inauguration to the overthrow of the Shah; Sick’s telling of the story is, however, considerably...
(The entire section is 2162 words.)