Ronald Reagan and the Iran Hostage Crisis
Did Ronald Reagan's impending inauguration help get our hostages released after 444 days?
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.