Byline: PETER MONAGHAN
American officials failed, in 1979, to see that Iranian revolutionary leaders' anger over U.S. foreign policy might cause the abduction of dozens of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Studying newly declassified documents, David Farber, a professor of history at Temple University, suggests in Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter With Radical Islam (Princeton University Press) that the incident holds lessons for U.S. policy in the region.
Q. Isn't hostage taking a powerful weapon against a nation that is so captive to media images, and so squeamish about American deaths?
A. That's just a fact. Terrorism as it was first used and defined well over 100 years ago in Western nations was seen as propaganda of the deed. ... It's troubling that political leaders haven't been able to talk hard and steely toward this aspect of terrorism. To the degree that we make each act equivalent to a war, we're playing into the hands of those who exploit propaganda of the deed.
Q. Why weren't U.S. officials better able to resolve the Iran crisis?
A. They thought that they could rationally solve this problem. ... Governments have a really hard time understanding how to deal with forces that are not organized as other governments. We're looking at the same situation now with the war on terrorism. This asymmetry of purpose was one of the lessons that the Iranian hostage crisis should have demonstrated, but perhaps was not well learned.
Q. Isn't it very hard to avoid this kind of manipulation?
A. It's clear that to the degree that the American government can avoid turning these kinds of symbolic acts -- and that's what hostage taking is -- into causes celebres for a nation, that is probably a good thing. Today most government officials try to defuse the situation by explaining the difficulties hostage taking puts governments in.
Q. You advocate social investment in the Muslim world, but wouldn't Islamic militants disdain this help as condescension?
A. I think I got to understand from reading into the motivations of the Khomeini government in the late 1970s and early 1980s the degree to which the U.S. government misunderstood the nature of the conflict. It was seen in the United States that during the Iranian crisis. ... They just hate us. We're just the great Satan, and it's almost religious, it's beyond reason. When you look at what was really happening, you saw this incredible frustration with American policy in Iran. And then we played into it by seemingly involving ourselves with the wrong side of the revolution, by coming to the aid of the shah. Reading the correspondence, there seemed to be this inability of government officials to say, "Oh, I get it, they're still mad because in 1953 we overthrew their government."