Over the course of less than two weeks, the Trump administration has marched the United States to the precipice of war with Iran. According to news reports, military commanders briefed Trump on the situation at his resort in Mar-a-Lago and presented him with a menu of options for the U.S. response. What made Trump choose the most extreme, most volatile option of assassinating Soleimani? Perhaps he made the decision based on intelligence about an imminent attack on Americans and American interests, as the administration will have us believe. Administration officials delivered this story to members of Congress in a 45-minute briefing widely criticized for its lack of content and coherence.
More likely, however, is that the decision was an emotional, knee-jerk response to a situation that looked all too familiar for the media-conscious septuagenarian sitting in the White House: the storming of the American embassy in Baghdad. While there are many explanations for why Trump would make what a vast majority of foreign policy analysts consider to be a terrible decision to assassinate a top Iranian government official, we should not discount the power of memory. Like many of his generation, Trump’s conception of Iran is indelibly linked to the experience of the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis. Viewed through this lens, killing Iran’s top general was just the medicine for a president frightened by Iran hostage crisis redux and bent on exacting revenge.
On December 31, in response to a U.S. airstrike that killed 25 members of the Iranian backed Iraqi group, Kata'ib Hezbollah, a crowd of Iraqi protesters descended on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. They penetrated the highly fortified perimeter of the Green Zone and marched through the street to the embassy door. Shouting “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel,” the mob broke through the outer walls. They hammered windows, gates, and doors with makeshift battering rams. They smashed through a main door, set a reception area on fire, and covered the embassy wall with militia flags and anti-U.S. graffiti. For a suspenseful 24 hours, American diplomats were trapped inside the embassy compound.
Forty years ago, another American embassy was stormed and held by militants, this time, by Iranians in Tehran.
Trump was in his early thirties when the Iran hostage crisis upended the power distribution in the Middle East and brought an American president to his knees. The event, referred to in Persian as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا (literally, Conquest of the American Spy Den) began in 1979 in the days after the popular overthrow of the U.S. backed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the consolidation of power by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic nationalist faction. Emboldened by the success of the revolution and angered by the United States’ refusal to return the Shah to Iran to face trial, a group of militant activists, Students Following the Line of the Imam, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two Americans captive for 444 days.
The Iran hostage crisis left an indelible mark on America’s collective memory. This is no minor feat for a nation that has trouble remembering what happened four years ago, let alone four decades ago. Why is the incident so emblazoned on the American memory, and more specifically in the mind of America’s 45th President? Why is it, as the wife of captured diplomat Bruce Laingen put it, all the "IRage"?
Part of the staying power of the Iran hostage crisis has to do with the element of surprise. It was alarming to see a major ally and top defense beneficiary turn on America so unexpectedly and absolutely. Americans were equally surprised that a civilized nation such as Iran would so brazenly violate international law and norms concerning the protection of diplomats and the sovereignty of embassies.
Another factor in the crisis’s resonance was the sheer humiliation it brought for America on the world stage. It was embarrassing that an American embassy could fall victim to a group of untrained, poorly armed zealots. It was mortifying that the American government could not stop the crisis, going weeks, and then months, and ultimately over a year, without freeing the captured diplomats.
The dramatic failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the secret mission President Carter deployed to rescue the hostages, only sharpened this impression. The rescue mission was aborted after a helicopter loaded with special operation forces got caught in a sand storm causing it to malfunction and veer into an accompanying transport plane. The collision killed eight servicemen and scattered survivors and wreckage across the Iranian dessert.
In a final act of humiliation, the Iranians seemingly engineered the release of the hostages to occur on the very day — indeed, to the very hour — of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, thus denying Carter the ability to claim credit for ending the crisis under his tenure. (His last, agonized efforts to secure the return of the hostages was dramatized in detail by ABC news).
"I’ll never forget when Iran had the hostages. And Jimmy Carter was helpless. It was just sad. And Ronald Reagan came in and he said those hostages will be delivered immediately. They were let go. They were let go. It was respect. We don’t have respect from the rest of the world."
There are obvious parallels in the recent siege of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and what happened in Iran in 1979. Both crises occurred at the end of a President’s first term and at the beginning of a competitive presidential election. In the case of Jimmy Carter, the hostage crisis cast a shadow over his presidency and doomed his reelection bid. Trump likely saw the bane of Jimmy Carter in his intelligence brief on the situation with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and was determined not to make the same mistakes.
A final factor that ingrained the hostage crisis in the psyche of people like Trump has to do with media exposure. The big three American cable news stations fixated on the story and covered it continuously through all 444 days. ABC’s Ted Koppel anchored a 20 minute news show dedicated to the standoff, titled “America Held Hostage.” Each evening of the crisis, CBS evening news anchor Walter Cronkite added to his famous signoff, “and that’s the way it is,” a count of the days the American diplomats remained in captivity in Iran. According to one study, coverage of the hostage crisis comprised more than 20 percent of all television news content during the period. The Iranians did their part to keep the story in the headlines. They staged holiday visitations, did interviews with the foreign press, issued missives, and paraded their American captives, bound and blindfolded, in front television news cameras for the world to see.
This combination of factors — surprise, humiliation, and intense media coverage — helped transform what was at first a diplomatic problem into a national crisis felt by every man, women, and child in America.
Donald Trump witnessed the hostage crisis and shared the rage, humiliation, and distress felt by so many Americans. That memory, and the visceral feeling of humiliation and rage it inspired, plainly colors Trump’s views on Iran today, and contains important indicators about the danger of the present situation.
Last week, the president raised the specter of the hostage crisis when he took to Twitter last week to warn Iran against retaliating against the U.S. for its killing of Soleimani or he would reciprocate by striking 52 Iranian sites, one for each hostage taken in 1979.
This was not the first time Trump has mentioned the hostage crisis in his Twitter tirades. In 2013, he criticized the Obama administration during early negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue. “US froze $8B in Iranian assets during ’79 Hostage Crisis. Now Obama is giving it back to Iran while Christian Pastor is jailed. Don't do it!” The tweet came on the heels of a number of tweets lamenting the apprehension of an American pastor by Iranian security forces.
In 2015, he attempted to use the hostage crisis to buttress his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country. He tweeted a link to a story by the fake news website, Front Page, which alleged that President Carter had passed an equivalent measure concerning Iranian citizens during the hostage crisis.
Trump once again tapped into the memory of the hostage crisis in 2016, harping on the humiliation of Iran’s detainment of 10 American sailors in the Strait of Hormuz.
And last June, in an almost comical instance of the power of these historical memories over the present, Trump announced crippling new sanctions on the man responsible for the hostage crisis, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, even though he died in 1989.
The very aspects of the hostage crisis that gave the event such resonance, bodes ill for American interests vis-a-vis Iran under the Trump administration.
With his vision colored by the hostage crisis, Trump is making decisions based on an outdated, inaccurate conception of the country and its leaders. The Iran of today is far from the revolutionary state of 1979. In fact, it is a decidedly un-revolutionary authoritarian theocracy and a largely predictable actor on the international and regional stage.
While it is true that many of the revolutionaries who took part in the hostage crisis are part of the ruling establishment today, these men are far from the impulsive, idealistic activists of their youth. Instead, they are entrenched ideologues, covetous of their power and resistant to change. The same goes for Iran’s all-powerful Supreme Leader. Especially amid the recent growing tide of discontent, he is insecure about his power and thus disposed to be highly circumspect and cautious in his policy decisions — a fact born out in his deft response to the Soleimani killing. Rather than doing something radical and lethal, like taking over an American embassy, Iran responded through limited, overt offensive action, using precision guided missiles to destroy largely unoccupied U.S. military sites in Iraq and incurring no American casualties.
Another consequence of Trump’s actions relates to the plight of diplomacy in the region. Soleimani was in Baghdad for negotiations with Iran’s arch-rival and co-equal in perpetuating war and instability in the region, Saudi Arabia. By choosing to hit Soleimani when he did, Trump showed a brazen disregard for the possibility of a diplomatically brokered peace. In all of his actions, from the massive defunding and purging of the State Department, to the shredding of the Iran nuclear deal, and now the strike on Soleimani, Trump has sought to destroy the very thing the site of the hostage crisis, the U.S. embassy in Tehran, represented: diplomacy.
This all augurs poorly for the immediate future of U.S.-Iran relations. As long as Trump is in the White House, the danger of a serious confrontation with Iran will continue to grow.