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Lessons from Iran hostage crisis

The seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran 20 years ago this week ignited a bitter political crisis. The fallout still afflicts the United States, Iran, and the Middle East.

America's humiliation in Iran helped produce Ronald Reagan's victory over President Carter and a deficit-busting defense buildup that stunted civilian development. Preoccupation with Iran probably prevented Carter from building on the Camp David accords in a second term to add Palestinians and Syria to Israel's peace with Egypt.

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Iran, weakened by crisis-generated isolation and sanctions, was severely damaged by the eight years of war that Iraq initiated when that weakness created opportunity for an attack. If there were no Iran-Iraq war, Iraq would never have invaded Kuwait, and there would have been no Gulf War and punishment of Iraq now.

These consequences could have been avoided by the exercise of basic diplomacy skills.

Both the Iranian and US leadership lacked an understanding of the nationalism they confronted, a willingness to talk and listen to the other side, courage to protect long-term goals by resisting domestic pressures, and patience to work out differences.

If the Eisenhower and Nixon/Kissinger administrations had understood the history of Iran's national struggle, they could not have bound the US so tightly to the shah, and would have listened to his opposition. They and Carter would have been sensitive to the Iranian conviction that Washington controlled Tehran.

Our embassy was seized twice in 1979 because revolutionaries feared a repeat of the 1953 CIA coup that returned the shah to power. Carter yielded to pressure in the US to admit the monarch while keeping the embassy open to refashion a relationship - two irreconcilable actions.

If Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers had understood the power of American pride, they would not have imprudently put the achievements of their revolution at risk. Intimates of Khomeini report he initially objected to the embassy seizure. "Who are these people?" he asked of the captors, but then his usually pragmatic mind was swayed by the chants of the fanatic faithful in the streets. When it came to favoring the hated shah or standing by his loyal supporters, Khomeini knew no choice.

One of his early acts after endorsing the captors was to prohibit any Iranian from talking to American officials about ending the crisis. The ban held for 444 days, violated only by Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh's secret meetings with Ham Jordan. (The Iranian was later executed for his initiative.) Khomeini's refusal to talk was natural enough: The State Department had never met with him.

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A meeting almost happened twice. Just before the revolution ended a meeting was set up, but Carter, influenced by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, backed down. Later, our charg was promised a call on the Ayatollah. The Iranians cancelled it when the US Senate - without consulting the executive branch - voted a resolution condemning Iran. Because officials had lacked the courage to meet with Khomeini, there was no one with a personal relationship to send when the crisis broke.

It was essentially an Iranian crisis that only Iranians could resolve in their own way and in their own time. But the media-led outcry that Carter "do something" led him to a serious mistake. Before Iran had agreed to receive him, he dispatched Ramsay Clark to Tehran with a tough message for Khomeini. Mr. Clark never got past Istanbul; Khomeini snubbed our arrogance. Soon embassy files were published, and Iranian assets were seized. Shia Iranians, always ready for martyrdom, saw themselves as victims of oppression. They justified hostage-taking - despite the violation of international law and Islamic principles.

What have we learned about using diplomacy against intense nationalisms? Not much, if our record with Iraqis, Serbs, Russians, and Israelis is evidence. Certainly, it isn't easy to persuade aggrieved or paranoid opponents to give up assets or activities they deem critical. It takes informed foresight to prepare the ground before a crisis breaks. Sometimes it is necessary to excuse distasteful actions while keeping in mind more distant, larger goals. Sometimes a leader must get tough with an opponent before his public realizes a crisis is brewing. Whatever course of action is decided, courage and patience in maintaining it are absolutely critical.

Putting these lessons to work might well begin by respectfully talking and listening to Iran.

* Henry Precht, a retired US foreign service officer, was in charge of the State Department's Iran desk during the revolution and hostage crisis.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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