A FEW WEEKS AGO, as I was giving a speech urging better relations between the United States and Iran, a man on the edge of the crowd began shouting in protest. Slowly I was able to make out his words. He was chanting a single phrase: “Hostage crisis! Hostage crisis! Hostage crisis!”
Forty years ago this weekend, militants scaled the wall of the American Embassy compound in Tehran and seized it. They could not have imagined how decisively they would shape history. Many Iranians still wonder how the embassy takeover and subsequent “hostage crisis” ended up shaping American perceptions of them and their country so decisively and for so long. Yet for the protester who disrupted my speech, and for countless other Americans, that episode crystallized the image of a malevolent Iran. Our other national humiliations, from the Alamo to Saigon, have faded from memory or been transformed into noble lost causes. Anger over the hostage crisis has not subsided. For four decades it has grotesquely distorted our approach to the Middle East. Although it ended peacefully with the release of American diplomats, it has had an effect on our national consciousness — and our foreign policy — comparable to the effect of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed.
The hostage crisis is a lamentable example of how ignorance leads nations to misunderstand each other. It led many Americans to believe that Iranians act out of pure nihilism, cheerfully violating every law of God and man without any reason other than a desire to show how much they hate us. Only years later did it become clear that the opposite was true. The hostage-takers acted to achieve a specific political goal — to stave off what they suspected was an imminent effort by the Americans to reinstall a despised Iranian leader. We might have recognized their motive if we knew our own history.
Rarely has a national humiliation been played out so excruciatingly as during the crisis that began in Iran on Nov. 4, 1979. Americans were already shocked by the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, our prized ally, earlier that year. Seizure of our embassy compound turned that shock from political to emotional. On newscasts every night for 14 months, Americans watched with mounting rage as images from Iran — blindfolded hostages intercut with vituperative denunciations of the United States — flooded into our living rooms. An attempted rescue mission ended in disaster. The hostage-takers had a slogan: “America cannot do anything!” They were right. That only intensified anti-Iran passion in a nation more accustomed to inflicting humiliation than feeling it. The result has been 40 years of bitter hostility.
We now know that militants stormed our embassy in Tehran because they feared the United States was about to launch a coup and reinstall the deposed shah. Diplomats posted there had reported this fear to Washington. They warned in one cable that if President Carter brought the shah to the United States, Iranians would believe the coup plot was underway and their reaction would be “immediate and violent.” When they learned that Carter had decided to bring the shah to New York despite their warning, one of them later recalled, they “felt we had been betrayed by our own people. How could they admit the Shah and leave us in Iran to face the angry wolves?”
Those diplomats knew something that few other Americans understood. A quarter-century earlier, in 1953, the CIA had directed a coup that destroyed an incipient democracy in Iran and placed the shah back on his Peacock Throne. Memory of that intervention, and the 25-year dictatorship that followed, burned in the minds of Iranian revolutionaries. They knew that Iranians had overthrown the Pahlavi shah once before, and that CIA officers working in the basement of the American Embassy had directed a coup that placed him back in power. Since it had happened once, they reasoned, it could happen again. To prevent that, they stormed the embassy.
“In the back of everybody’s mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d’etat had begun,” one of the hostage-takers wrote years later. “Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible.”
But if Iranian militants were intent on preventing a second coup, few Americans had any idea that we had ever staged a first. That is why we misinterpreted their assault as an act of mindless savagery.
Two generations of American politicians and military officers have been obsessed with punishing Iran for the embassy takeover and hostage crisis. Their enmity has other reasons as well, including hostile Iranian actions and pressure from our regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yet after four decades, policy makers in Washington remain fixated on the events of 1979 and convinced that we cannot rest until we have satisfaction. For many of them, it seems, true satisfaction can only come with the destruction of the Islamic Republic.
Americans see the history of US-Iran relations as beginning and ending with the hostage crisis. Iranians see that history quite differently: shaped almost entirely by the 1953 coup. Until these two countries come to a common understanding of what we have done to each other, peace will remain remote.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.