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Ronald Reagan and the Iran Hostage Crisis

In his AIPAC speech yesterday, Mitt Romney declared, “I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength. There’s a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn in. As president, I’ll offer that kind of clarity, strength and resolve.”

The PolitiFact gang rates this as a Pants on Fire untruth. Interviewing several historians, the find that the Iranian government decided to make a deal with the outgoing Carter administration for reasons having little or nothing to do with Reagan. Knowing what I know about international politics, that strikes me as not only plausible but likely.

Then again, PolitiFact quotes Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter who now teaches at Boston University and authored the book, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future: ”My guess is that the hostages would have been released even if someone else had been inaugurated — anyone but Carter. The Iranians had come to hate Carter and didn’t want to give him a triumph. Giving it to someone else was fine with them.” That, too, seems not only plausible but matches my contemporaneous recollection. (Granted, I was 15 at the time. But the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Election of 1980 were seminal events in my political awakening.)

It’s rather silly, then, to treat Romney’s statement as if it were a lie. At worst, it’s a political fairy tale and an incredibly plausible one at that.

And let’s be clear, Romney’s version, while largely mythological, was received wisdom at the time. The banner headline in the January 21, 1981 edition of the New York Times was “Reagan Takes Oath as 40th President; Promises an ‘Era of National Renewal’–Minutes Later, 52 U.S. Hostages In Iran Fly to Freedom After 444-Day Ordeal.” And here’s what Bernard Gwertzman reported in that story:

The 52 Americans were freed as part of a complex agreement that was not completed until early yesterday morning, when the last snags holding up their release were removed by Mr. Carter and his aides, in the final diplomatic action of their Administration.

Under the terms of the accord, as the Algerian plane left Iranian air space, nearly $3 billion of Iranian assets that had been frozen by the United States were returned to Iran, and many more billions of dollars were made available for Iranian repayment of debts.

The 52 Americans were freed only minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. The concurrence in timing held millions of Americans at their radios and television sets, following the pageantry of Inauguration Day and the news of the hostages’ release.

The negotiators, who had worked around the clock for five days in an effort to bring the crisis to an end before Mr. Carter left office, said that they had no idea whether the Iranians had deliberately dragged out the talks so as to insure that the hostages were not actually in the air until Mr. Reagan was President.

It’s rather unreasonable to expect our presidential candidates to consult with teams of historians to get their post hoc, studied reactions to events. Those who have studied the negotiations since–and presumably had the ability to talk to some on the Iranian side–have since concluded that there’s little to no evidence that the incoming president’s foreign policy was a significant factor. But there’s no reason on earth Romney should know that.

And it’s quite likely, indeed, that the timing of the release was chosen by the Iranians to give the least possible amount of satisfaction and credit to the hated Jimmy Carter, who had given sanction to the Shah during his dying days.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Call me old fashioned, but I think fairy tales told as historical truths are pretty much “lies.”

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  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    It’s rather silly, then, to treat Romney’s statement as if it were a lie. At worst, it’s a political fairy tale and an incredibly plausible one at that.

    What’s the difference between a political fairy tale and a lie exactly?

    And it wasn’t received wisdom at the time outside of Republicans nor does your clipping from the NYT posit a direct link.

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  3. (I understand that the 80’s understanding was that it was, but “reason” is pretty much the ability to learn new truths, and speak them, rather than to repeat what you knew before you learned different.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Do people still read PolitiFact?

    As to: “It’s rather unreasonable to expect our presidential candidates to consult with teams of historians to get their post hoc, studied reactions to events.” Yeah, they should just believe their own mythology!

    In Mitt’s defense tho, it was a Republican primary and there is precious little room for truth in one of those.

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  5. anjin-san says:

    As president, I’ll offer that kind of clarity, strength and resolve.

    Far more likely that he would continue to serve up the waffles that are his stock in trade. If Romney has ever shown “clarity, strength, and resolve, now would be a good time for us to remind us when it was.

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  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    PoliFact??

    In any case, I never believed too much in coincidences. Reagan was inaugurated. The hostages were released that same day. Cause and effect. A prima facie case.

    Putting that aside, the more important issue concerning the Reagan-Carter dichotomy is that if Zombieland somehow had managed to reelect Carter the Soviet Union still would be the Soviet Union, Iran would be to the Soviets what Lebanon in the 1990’s was to the Syrians, but teeming with oil!, there still would be an East Germany, Eastern Europe still would be communist and starving to death, and the U.S. would be a really depressing place in which to live, even with Paxil and Zoloft.

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  7. John Burgess says:

    My first day at work in the Foreign Service was on Nov. 4, 1979. The events of the day rather focused our attention as we sat in our first training classes.

    Before I was sent overseas on my first assignment, following language training, I was delayed by a medical issue that needed to be resolved. As a result, I was working in the NEA Bureau from Sept. 1980, into ’81; in fact, I was working the Iran Desk at USIA. I was surrounded by more experienced officers, most of whom had worked in Iran.

    It was very clear to us that ‘anyone but Carter’ was the Iranian operating principle. As long as Carter was President, the hostages would not be released. As soon as he left the office, they were. I was in the office on Inauguration Day, handling the cables announcing that the hostages had been released and were en route to Wiesbaden for medical check-ups and debriefings.

    I got overseas a couple of weeks later.

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  8. c.red says:

    He is misleading people about something that has been more or less common knowledge for at least 20 years, I’d rate that “pants on fire”.

    He’s either attempting to either pander to a myth to gain votes, or he truly believes something that serious historians generally dismiss. In other words he is willing to lie to you or to himself.

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  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    In any case, I never believed too much in coincidences. Reagan was inaugurated. The hostages were released that same day. Cause and effect. A prima facie case.

    cum hoc ergo propter hoc

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  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    @John Burgess:

    As long as Carter was President, the hostages would not be released.

    Are you saying the months of negotiations that had been taking place prior to their release were irrelevant to their release and that the mere change of president would have immediately have brought about their release?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 6

  11. PD Shaw says:

    @John Burgess: “It was very clear to us that ‘anyone but Carter’ was the Iranian operating principle. As long as Carter was President, the hostages would not be released. As soon as he left the office, they were.”

    The few books I’ve read on the subject also conclude that the timing of the release was intended humiliate Carter. I think the question remains whether that was about Carter personally or about the type of internationalist engagement policies he represented. If its at all the latter, I don’t think Reagan’s foreign policy is entirely irrelevant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2

  12. Rob in CT says:

    If Romney really wants to talk about Reagan and Iran, I’d be happy to get into a conversation about Iran-Contra…

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 7

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    In any case, I never believed too much in coincidences.

    I agree Tsar. It is no coincidence that the rooster crows and then the sun rises. Cause and effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I don’t think Reagan’s foreign policy is entirely irrelevant.

    Perhaps they had a heads up on Iran-Conta .

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  15. MBunge says:

    The “pants on fire” part isn’t the reference to Reagan and the hostages. It’s that Romney is trying to portray Obama as some sort of helpless weakling in the face of Iran and that all it needs is for Romney to get tough with them. The reality is that either Romney would be doing exactly what Obama is with Iran or he’d start a war with them, which is a bit more than just “getting tough”.

    Mike

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @MBunge: That’s likely true, although it has nothing to do with the PolitiFact article.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  17. bobby bow says:

    I read Willard’s speech as an editorial this morning.
    First, to have a draft dodger call Lt Jimmy Carter feckless is precious.
    Then, to have a chicken hawk rattle his sabre like this is comical.
    Finally, to have him just plain lie about Reagan’s role in the release is despicable.
    Willard forgot to mention that Saint Ronnie also illegally sold weapons to these same Iranians to generate cash for the Sandinista’s.
    “You are welcome to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”
    BTW – I would like to see Willard call Jimmy Carter or Barach Obama feckless to their faces.
    Feckless is a man who straps the family dog to the roof of his car for an international vacation.

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  18. bobby bow says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: You forgot a few other things.
    Our economy would not have been raped and pillaged by Supply Side Economics.
    The Iranians would not have bought weapons from us through the Israeli’s to finance the Sandinista’s.
    Organized labor would still be able to lookout for the welfare of ordinary Americans.
    Deficit spending would not have become normal for our economy.
    Defunding the States by the Federal Gov’t wouldn’t have led to the crsis in public education and property taxes.
    These are just a few of Saint Ronnies greatest hits on our Nation.

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  19. JKB says:

    The only thing we don’t know is what the reaction would have been if there had been a Democrat besides Carter in the general election. Unless the mullahs truly were mad, they’d be crazy to have American hostages after a new president was inaugurated.

    Perhaps they despised Carter and had no respect but a new president couldn’t start his administration with such an ostentatious display of Americans in enemy hands. The matter was going to be resolved one way or another. By negotiating a release, the mullahs got some of their cash and got to keep their heads. Otherwise by the time of the cherry blossoms along the Potomac, SpecOps would secure the hostages, Airborne would have fought into and secured the embassy and the Marines would have burned a swath of destruction from beach to the center of Tehran to pull everyone out. Any president who didn’t do that wouldn’t be a lame duck, he’d have been a dead duck.

    Bullies fold when someone with some backbone gets involved. Our mistake was not wiping out the Iranian military capability in retaliation for the taking regardless of the release but times were complicated in the Cold War.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 10

  20. Hey Norm says:

    “…there’s little to no evidence that the incoming president’s foreign policy was a significant factor. But there’s no reason on earth Romney should know that…”

    WTF???
    Look…Romney was standing before one of the most radical religious tribal groups in the world which, as we speak, is hell bent on driving us to war. This is fact…not hyperbole. Romney, in addressing these war-mongers was calling the Commander-in-Chief feckless, and posturing himself as the latest incarnation of Reagan…a man who by his telling Iran was so afraid of they simply released the hostages.
    AND YOU DON’T THINK HE HAD A RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ACTUAL FACTS OF THE TALE HE WAS TELLING???
    Bullshit. Just total f’ing bullshit.

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  21. reid says:

    @Hey Norm: Exactly. Excusing this insidious BS is low, James. Is this how far we’ve sunk, looking the other way because hey, at least he didn’t promise to drop The Bomb on Tehran his first day in office?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner: That’s correct. The polifact piece is all about the innacuracy of Romney’s claims about the release of the hostages and Reagan’s role in it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Hey Norm:

    AND YOU DON’T THINK HE HAD A RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ACTUAL FACTS OF THE TALE HE WAS TELLING???

    The fact that JJ thinks there’s no difference between political fairy tales (even ones as sensistive as this) and lies should provide your answer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  24. Same Ronald Reagan that sold Iran weapons to get their terrorist proxies to release hostages that they were holding?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 6

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    Same Ronald Reagan that sold Iran weapons to get their terrorist proxies to release hostages that they were holding?

    But couldn’t remember it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  26. Hey Norm says:

    I’m reminded of Jon Kyl:

    “…it was not intended to be a factual statement…”

    The sad thing about our political discourse is that you have AIPAC, an extremist religious faction, pushing for another war of choice in the total absence of proof and/or concern for the consequences…and we are discussing whether Romney knows what the f’ he is talking about or not. Next thing you know we are up to our ass in sand and suicide bombers and everyone is wondering how the f’ we got there.
    WAKE UP PEOPLE…THE SAME IDIOTS ARE DOING IT AGAIN!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  27. John Burgess says:

    @Brummagem Joe: That’s exactly what I’m saying. The Iranians were happy to receive whatever the US might have to offer in negotations, but it would never be enough as long as Carter was in office.

    This has led to a particular strain of conspiracy theory that posits Reagan and/or Bush were responsible for the Iranian position. A branch of the theory goes that Iran-Contra was the payoff. I do not believe any of that, however.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  28. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    What’s the difference between a political fairy tale and a lie exactly?

    The party affiliation of the person making the statement.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4

  29. Brummagem Joe says:

    @John Burgess:

    That’s exactly what I’m saying. The Iranians were happy to receive whatever the US might have to offer in negotations, but it would never be enough as long as Carter was in office.

    Well it’s a completely umprovable proposition. If Carter had been re-elected are saying the Iranians would have held these people for another four years. It doesn’t seem likely and apparently according to polifact 7 reputable historians disagree with you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    The party affiliation of the person making the statement.

    Oh yes I forgot….It’s ok if Republicans do it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  31. KariQ says:

    If Carter had been reelected, it would have been interesting to see what the timing would have been. Clearly, from the Iranian perspective, Reagen’s election was a gift opportunity for them. If they hadn’t had it, there’s no clear and obvious moment to release the hostages, they would have had to either kill them (which obviously would have started a war and they didn’t want to do that) or make up a reason to release them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  32. An Interested Party says:

    Putting that aside, the more important issue concerning the Reagan-Carter dichotomy is that if Zombieland somehow had managed to reelect Carter the Soviet Union still would be the Soviet Union, Iran would be to the Soviets what Lebanon in the 1990′s was to the Syrians, but teeming with oil!, there still would be an East Germany, Eastern Europe still would be communist and starving to death, and the U.S. would be a really depressing place in which to live, even with Paxil and Zoloft.

    Oh look, someone thinks he’s a science fiction writer…how cute…

    By negotiating a release, the mullahs got some of their cash and got to keep their heads. Otherwise by the time of the cherry blossoms along the Potomac, SpecOps would secure the hostages, Airborne would have fought into and secured the embassy and the Marines would have burned a swath of destruction from beach to the center of Tehran to pull everyone out.

    That’s rather laughable considering the administration in power at the time of the cherry blossoms later did dirty deals with those same mullahs…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  33. John Burgess says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Having met historians who like to tell stories that ignore inconvenient facts, I’m not at all surprised.

    I’m just reporting what the consensus opinion was within USIA and State as 1980 rolled to a close. As several of my interlocutors were actually taking part in the negotiations, I’ll tend to believe them rather than those reporting from second- or third-hand sources. Even if some of those histories were written by members of the negotiating teams, I’ll still stick with my sources.

    I don’t think that, had Carter been re-elected, the hostages would have been held for four more years. I do think that the price would have been extraordinarily high, that it would have not been in the US interest, but that domestic US politics would have forced acceptance of whatever the deal was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  34. Brummagem Joe says:

    @John Burgess:

    Having met historians who like to tell stories that ignore inconvenient facts,

    So every one of these seven guys was telling stories that ignored inconvenient facts?

    Even if some of those histories were written by members of the negotiating teams, I’ll still stick with my sources.

    So we can disregard what members of the negotiating team may have said even if it was just being reported publicly and rely on your anonymous sources. This is not quite how the historical record functions.

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  35. Anderson says:

    Romney lies by habit. Larison calls him on it constantly. This is par for his course.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  36. Gregory says:

    I’m no Reagan fan, but I’ve always held that it was decent of him to name Carter his official representative to greet the former hostages upon their release.

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  37. Barry says:

    @Brummagem Joe: A ‘fairy tale’ is a lie which is supported by Very Serious People.

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  38. biggerbox says:

    But there’s no reason on earth Romney should know that.

    Well, except that he lived through it, and there is no record of his living most of his life in a cave without media access all these years. Anyone of his age with even a passing interest in current events who hasn’t suffered brain damage should remember the Iran-Contra affair, and has had multiple opportunities to encounter a later analysis of the hostage crisis in the popular media.

    And we’ve had an easily searchable World Wide Web for years now, so even if they HAD suffered brain damage and had lost all memory of the Reagan administration selling arms to Iran, anyone with the slightest interest in doing five minutes of research before publishing his writings in a major newspaper could have learned it with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks.

    So, yeah, aside from the fact that one might expect an intelligent man concerned with public affairs to actually remember the important world events of his life, and that he’s had plenty of opportunities to be reminded, AND that he could have looked it up in a few minutes if he’d cared to, probably on the same device he was writing his op-ed on, “no reason on earth.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  39. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    What’s the difference between a political fairy tale and a lie exactly?

    There are all manner of things that people believe to be true that experts say isn’t. Stating these things isn’t a lie, which is an intentionally dishonest statement.

    People believe that Reagan singlehandedly won the Cold War; he didn’t. They believe that presidents have some enormous influence over the economy, including gas prices and the unemployment rate; they don’t. Spouting these things on the campaign trail, though, doesn’t make you a liar.

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  40. Socrates says:

    “There are all manner of things that people believe to be true that experts say isn’t. Stating these things isn’t a lie, which is an intentionally dishonest statement.”

    But Mr. Romney is running for President. There’s really no excuse. If he’s going to write on the subject, in a major American newspaper, the bare minimum we might ask is that he get acquainted with the basic facts. Yes?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  41. beejeez says:

    It’s rather unreasonable to expect our presidential candidates to consult with teams of historians to get their post hoc, studied reactions to events.

    Yes, why should we expect presidential candidates to be knowledgeable about history? What possible use could that have?

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