Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy.
JIMMY CARTER, 1977
Iran is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.
JIMMY CARTER, 1977
IN NOVEMBER 1976, JIMMY CARTER NARROWLY DEFEATED GERALD FORD for the presidency. Carter had conducted a skillful campaign that took full advantage of the public’s response to Nixon’s Watergate scandal, widespread resentment of big government in Washington, D.C., and the general perception of a need for a less-active, less-involved foreign policy. In effect, Carter promised no more Watergates and no more Vietnams.
What he was for was less certain. A Georgia businessman and former governor of the state, in terms of foreign affairs Carter was the least-experienced President of the post-World War II era. In sharp contrast to the realpolitik of the Kissinger years, Carter’s chief characteristic was his idealism. Unlike his predecessors, he did not regard Communism as the chief enemy; he said repeatedly that Americans had become too fearful of the Communists while giving too little attention to the greater danger of the arms race and too much support to repressive right-wing dictatorships around the world.
In his inaugural address, Carter said his ultimate goal was the elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth. He wanted to start immediately to limit arms and to decrease America’s arm sales overseas because he did not want the United States to remain the arms merchant to the world. And he made a firm commitment to the defense of human rights everywhere, later calling human rights “the soul of our foreign policy” and making them the touchstone of American relations with the other nations of the world. All were noble goals, nobly stated. They raised hopes worldwide, especially the emphasis on human rights, which struck a responsive chord among the oppressed everywhere.
But all the goals were wildly impractical and none were achieved. Far from making progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons, the Carter administration continued to increase the American nuclear arsenal at about the same rate as had the Nixon and Ford administrations. American arms sales abroad actually increased during the Carter years. Furthermore, Carter’s emphasis on human rights badly damaged America’s relationship with many of her oldest allies; it caused resentment in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries that contributed to the failure to achieve such major goals as arms control or genuine détente; it contributed to the downfall of America’s oldest and staunchest ally in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, with consequences that were also disastrous for Carter himself. There was a huge gap between aim and achievement in the Carter administration. The principal causes of the gap were an excess of idealism, a lack of experience, and an overreaction to Russian actions.
“We can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere,” Carter declared in his inaugural address. “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.”
The concept that every human being has certain unalienable rights is essentially Jeffersonian and American, but it had received worldwide backing in the UN Charter (1945) and again in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, when all the participants, including the Soviet Union, solemnly agreed to respect and protect the human rights of their own citizens.33 Unfortunately, there was no enforcement machinery. Congress had endorsed the policy in the early 1970s, before Carter’s inauguration. In reaction to Kissinger’s realpolitik and embarrassed by America’s support of dictators around the world, Congress forbade American aid to countries that engaged “in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Thus Carter was not advancing an original idea, but no President before him had gone so far in the area of human rights.
Carter felt the issue deeply himself and, in addition, it provided an opportunity for him to distinguish his foreign policy from that of Nixon and Kissinger. Further, it offered something to both the Cold Warriors (who could and did use it to criticize the Soviet Union for its abominable record on human rights) and to idealists (who could and did use it to criticize Chile, Brazil, South Africa, and others for their abominable records on human rights). Carter established a Bureau on Human Rights in the State Department and gave or withheld economic aid, trade advantages, weapons, and other forms of aid on the basis of a nation’s human rights record.
The campaign for human rights brightened Carter’s image, but had little discernible positive effect and did considerable harm. He preached to the converted; the sinners deeply resented Carter’s sermons on human rights and either ignored his pleas for improved treatment of their political prisoners or actually increased the repression. Still, the human rights advocates were convinced that the campaign was positive and helpful. As one of them put it, “The former reputation of the United States as a supporter of freedom was being restored, replacing its more recent image as a patron of tyranny.”
A major difficulty, however, was that inevitably the campaign was directed against America’s allies and friends rather than its enemies, if only because such allies as South Korea, Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, Taiwan, Nicaragua, and Iran were vulnerable to Carter’s pressure, since they relied upon the United States for military sales and economic assistance. To critics, it made little sense to weaken America’s allies because of objections to their morals while continuing to advance loan credits, sell grain, and ship advanced technology to the Soviet Union, which had one of the worst human rights records in the world and was clearly no friend of the United States.
In his relations with the Soviet Union, Carter’s major goals were to free America from its “inordinate fear of Communism” and to complete a SALT II treaty that would reduce the chances of nuclear war. His Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, a New York lawyer with long government experience, was a leading advocate of détente and took a moderate and conciliatory approach toward the Russians. Carter and Vance believed that it was time to redefine the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Vance stressed that the new approach to the Soviets had to be based upon “positive incentives” rather than a policy of containment. He rejected the notion that “the United States can dominate the Soviet Union” or otherwise “order the world just the way we want it to be.” The United States had to accept a more limited role in world affairs.
The first “positive inducement” took place within twenty-four hours of Carter’s inaugural, when he ordered the immediate withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from South Korea. This major step did not elicit any Soviet response (and was in fact ultimately blocked by the Pentagon bureaucracy). This outcome was highly disappointing to Carter, who had, it must be noted, shown his inexperience by taking such a bold step without first discussing it with his own military leaders and without first informing the Kremlin and obtaining some promises for reciprocal action in advance. In general, during his first year in office, Carter was distressed by Soviet failure to respond to his signals. As America backed off from some of its more advanced positions around the world, the Soviets, far from responding in kind, became more adventuresome. They continued and even increased their arms buildup, became involved in both the Horn of Africa and in southern Africa, using Cuban troops as their advance agents. The Russians evidently saw Carter’s “positive incentives” as signs of weakness and indecision and they responded by becoming more aggressive.
The Russian actions strengthened the position of Carter’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a political scientist who immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1953. Brzezinski was in the Kissinger-realpolitik tradition, and he competed with Vance for influence over Carter. Brzezinski made powerful arguments for not trusting the Soviets, arguments that were strengthened by Russian actions. For example, in early 1979 the Russians began placing jetfighter aircraft, a combat unit, and a submarine pen in Cuba. Carter was furious with Leonid Brezhnev for this apparent violation of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis accord, and went on national television to denounce the Soviet Union for its actions.34 Brezhnev, predictably and correctly, replied that the airplanes and other equipment were not offensive weapons by their nature and thus did not violate the 1962 Kennedy-Khrushchev informal arrangement. Nor did Brezhnev remove the weapons or the troops. For Carter the experience was a stage in his journey from idealism to a hard line with regard to the Soviets.
The most important result of Carter’s growing hostility toward and fear of the Soviets was the demise of SALT II. Carter was unwilling to go more than halfway in meeting the Russians; indeed, Carter eventually demanded more arms for the United States, and less for the Soviets, than Kissinger and Nixon had been willing to accept. Carter’s demands, plus Soviet resentment at his public support for Russian dissidents and his linking of SALT talks to human rights, set back the negotiations for more than a year. Carter had said he wanted to complete the treaty in 1977, but not until June 1979 did Carter meet with Brezhnev in Vienna to sign the SALT II treaty. By then, Carter had already ordered the construction of cruise (Pershing II) missiles, and an enhanced radiation (neutron) bomb. Brezhnev had responded by accelerating Soviet production of the Backfire Bomber and the new SS-20 missiles.
The SALT II treaty that the two leaders signed in Vienna was a strange accord. As had been the case with SALT I, it set upper limits toward which both sides could build rather than freezing nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and it failed altogether to even mention the Pershing II missiles or the Backfire Bomber or the MIRV problem (multiple warheads for individual ICBMs). Salt II, in short, was far behind the current technology. Specifically, the treaty limited each side to 2,400 launchers of all types. At that time, in mid-1979, the two sides were roughly equal: The United States had 1,054 ICBMs, of which 550 were MIRVed, while the Russians had 1,398 ICBMs, of which 576 were MIRVed. The United States had 656 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, of which 496 were MIRVed, while the Russians had 950, of which 128 were MIRVed. In addition, the United States had 574 heavy bombers carrying the largest nuclear weapons, while the Soviets had 156 such bombers. As both sides were free to build as many nuclear warheads as they wished, and to MIRV all their launchers, SALT II, for all practical purposes, put no limits at all on the arms race.
Nevertheless, the treaty was sharply criticized in the United States, especially in the Senate, where it was charged that it gave too much away and allowed Russia’s supposed strategic superiority to continue and even to grow. Carter himself, as one part of his hardening attitude toward the Soviets, lost faith in the treaty. He did not press for ratification. Instead, in December 1979, the Carter administration persuaded its NATO partners to agree to a program of installing Pershing II missiles with nuclear warheads in Western Europe as a response to the Soviet installation of hundreds of new medium-range SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe. This was hardly a move forced by the Americans on reluctant Europeans. The West Germans, British, Dutch, and other NATO members were greatly alarmed by the SS-20 threat and insisted upon an American response. NATO members made a “two-track” decision—to install American cruise missiles in Western Europe while simultaneously urging arms control talks on the Russians. The NATO states promised that if the Russians would remove SS-20s in Eastern Europe, the cruise missiles would not be installed. These steps were a major escalation in the arms race and had, as one immediate effect, the bringing to life of the moribund antinuclear movement in Europe, which soon spread to the United States. People throughout the world, from every walk of life and every political persuasion, found it increasingly difficult to understand how building more bombs enhanced their security. In an era in which each side had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and overkill capacity was measured in factors of forty to fifty, it was equally difficult to see how adding to that capacity improved a nation’s strategic position. Nevertheless, the arms race went on.
In December 1979, some 85,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. The event seriously jolted Carter. He said that “the implications of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could pose the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War,” and argued that “aggression unopposed becomes a contagious disease.” The United States curtailed grain sales to Russia, suspended high-technology sales, and—at Carter’s insistence—boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. In addition, Carter told the Senate to defer indefinitely consideration of the SALT II treaty. These were all most serious steps—except for the Olympic boycott, which was purely symbolic and for which the Russians got their revenge in 1984—and represented a reversal of long-standing policies that went back to the Kennedy years. Indeed, by 1980 Carter was taking a generally harder line toward the Soviets than any President since Eisenhower. He explained that Afghanistan was the reason, saying: “This action of the Soviets has made a more drastic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.” He called the invasion “a stepping-stone to their possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies.”
Carter’s critics saw his response as an overreaction. They argued that the Soviets went into Afghanistan for defensive reasons. There already existed in Afghanistan a pro-Moscow government, put in power after a coup in April 1978; that government, however, was unable to suppress Muslim insurgency and the Russians—evidently fearful that the Muslim uprising that had already swept through Iran would spread to the millions of Muslims within the Soviet Union—reacted by invading.
But Carter insisted that the Red Army was on the march—and it was true that this was the first time the Soviets had sent their own troops into an area not conquered by the Red Army in 1945. Fearful for the West’s oil supplies, Carter backed away from SALT II and increased defense spending; he also announced that restrictions on the activities of the CIA would be lifted and proclaimed a Carter Doctrine for Southwest Asia. Defining the Persian Gulf area as within the zone of American vital interests, Carter declared that the United States would repel an assault in that region by the Russians “by any means necessary—including military force.” Critics asked how the United States could defend, singlehandedly, an area thousands of miles from any American military base, except through the use of nuclear weapons, and expressed the wish that Carter had consulted with the Persian Gulf states and the NATO countries before promulgating the Carter Doctrine.
When Carter left office, relations with the Soviet Union were worse than they had been when he was inaugurated. Soviet dissenters were persecuted more actively and severely in 1980 than had been the case in 1976. The nuclear arsenals of the superpowers had increased. Soviet SS-20s threatened Western Europe as never before, while America was producing cruise missiles so as to equally threaten Eastern Europe and Russia. Trade between the United States and the Soviet Union had fallen off sharply.
Carter had begun with a firm policy, a policy that in many ways held hope for a new beginning—lowered expenditures for armaments, greater trust between the two sides, more trade and more cultural exchanges, in short, a genuine détente. But he had been unable to hold to that policy, in largest part because of the failure of the Soviets to respond to his “positive incentives,” but also because of internal political pressure to “get tough,” because his own inexperience led him to overreact to events, as in Cuba and Afghanistan, and because the momentum of the arms race could not be even slowed, much less halted, as each side reacted to its fears of technological or numerical breakthrough by the other. And because, too, Carter was not a strong enough captain to set a course and hold to it. By 1980, the word most often used to describe his foreign policy was “waffle.” It was a stinging indictment.
Aside from the human rights campaign, Carter’s idealism had its greatest impact on policy in relations with Africa, Latin America, and China. In Africa, Ambassador Andrew Young’s outspoken support in the United Nations for the merging nations of the continent, plus his insistence on majority rule in southern Africa, won many new friends for the United States. In Latin America, Carter withdrew support from the repressive military junta in Chile, thus reversing Nixon’s policy. In February 1978, Carter also cut all military and economic aid to one of America’s oldest allies, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, because of Somoza’s odious record on human rights. In June 1979, the United States supported an OAS resolution calling for Somoza’s resignation. Without American assistance Somoza could not withstand the attacks of the Sandinista guerrilla movement. In July 1979, Somoza fled to Miami; a year later, he was assassinated in Paraguay. The United States immediately recognized the new Sandinista government and provided it with $16 million in economic aid. A year later, Carter signed a $75-million aid package for Nicaragua. Insofar as the Sandinistas were left wing, with a strong Communist element in the government, Carter’s response to the revolution represented a major shift in United States’ relations with Central America.
In May 1980, left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador, encouraged and aided by the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, and by Castro, began a civil war. The El Salvador government fought back with brutal, but inefficient, search-and-destroy missions. El Salvador’s army sent out right-wing death squads to slaughter civilian opponents in the hundreds, indeed ultimately in the thousands. Following the murder of three American nuns and a lay worker by government troops, Carter suspended military and economic aid to El Salvador, although on January 14, 1981, in one of his last acts as President, he announced the resumption of limited aid.
One of Carter’s great triumphs in foreign policy came in 1978, when he took a bold and courageous stand on the Panama Canal Treaty, which returned to Panama full sovereignty over the Canal Zone. By no means could Carter take full credit—negotiations had begun during the Johnson administration and were brought to near-completion under the Republicans in the seventies. But when it came time for the crucial Senate vote, a highly charged, emotional opposition nearly blocked it. Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the presidency, denounced the treaty. One Senator said irritably, “We stole it [Panama] fair and square.” But both Ford and Kissinger gave the treaty their support, and Carter put the full weight of the presidency behind ratification. The treaty narrowly passed.
Carter also followed the Republican lead with regard to China. Nixon’s 1972 trip had opened the door to a new United States-Chinese relationship, but the problems of full recognition of Communist China and what to do about America’s treaties with Nationalist China still had to be overcome. Carter announced in 1978 that as of January 1, 1979, the United States and China would extend full recognition to each other and exchange ambassadors. Further, the United States unilaterally ended its 1954 mutual defense treaty with Taiwan and withdrew diplomatic recognition of the Nationalist regime there, simultaneously recognizing Taiwan as part of China. Senator Barry Goldwater and presidential candidate Reagan led Republican criticisms of this “betrayal” of one of America’s staunchest allies, but Carter forced the new policy through anyway, primarily because it was a logical outgrowth of the Nixon-Kissinger initiative in China, a fact that strongly muted Republican criticism.
Carter also followed Kissinger’s lead in the Middle East, where he played a central role in bringing about a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, something almost no one—including Kissinger—had thought possible. In the process, Carter raised his own prestige both in the United States and around the world. Carter’s success was possible, primarily, because of Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat. Sadat recognized that Egypt could afford no more war and was, in any case, incapable of driving the occupying Israeli army out of the Sinai. He decided to offer Israel peace and recognition in return for the occupied Egyptian territory. In December 1977, Sadat went to Israel to speak to the Israeli Parliament, an act of great courage and drama that captured the imagination of the world. Sadat was risking not only denunciation by his fellow Arabs but assassination as well. He also risked being misunderstood by the Israelis. He was forthright in what he told the Parliament, insisting that any agreement between Israel and Egypt would have to include an Israeli retreat from the West Bank of the Jordan River and from the Golan Heights, a homeland for the Palestinians and a recognition of the PLO as their government, and a relinquishment of Israel’s unilateral hold on the city of Jerusalem. Such objectives seemed impossible, as the new Israeli Prime Minister, former terrorist and right-wing politician Menachem Begin, was unwilling to compromise on Jerusalem or the PLO. Nor would Begin make concessions on the Golan Heights or the West Bank. But Begin was willing to sign a separate peace with Egypt (it had long been an aim of Israeli foreign policy to divide the Arabs). Sadat could not abandon the other Arabs, especially the PLO, not even for the return of the Sinai, but he was willing to talk. This gave Carter his opportunity.
In the fall of 1978 Carter invited Begin and Sadat to meet with him at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, with the United States acting as a “full partner” in the negotiations. For nearly two weeks the three men carried on intensive discussions. They could not reach a final agreement, however, because they could not settle the issues of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, or the PLO. By December, they had reached an impasse. Carter called it “the most frustrating experience of my life.”
Still, he persisted. In early 1979 he made a sudden, dramatic journey to the Middle East, where he met with Sadat in Egypt and Begin in Israel, and eventually persuaded them to sign a peace treaty. Essentially it was an agreement for Egyptian recognition of Israel, and peace between the two nations, in return for a staged Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. The future of the PLO was also mentioned, but in a vague way that allowed conflicting interpretations as to what was meant. The agreement did not mention the Golan Heights or Jerusalem (indeed, Begin incorporated the Golan Heights into the State of Israel in 1982, and Jewish settlers in large numbers moved into the West Bank). The treaty was therefore unacceptable to the other Arab states, who vigorously denounced Sadat. But the treaty did lead to an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, completed in April 1982, and the opening of diplomatic economic relations between Egypt and Israel. Sadly, it also led to Sadat’s assassination, by Egyptian soldiers, in October 1981.
Ironically, it was events in the Middle East, site of Carter’s greatest triumph, that led to his downfall. In one of the most bizarre incidents of the twentieth century, the Iranian revolution almost brought American government, in 1980, to a standstill. Events in Iran played a major role in the presidential election that year and led to Carter’s electoral defeat.
Since 1953, the year in which the CIA participated in a coup that restored the Shah of Iran to his throne, American relations with the Shah had wavered. Eisenhower had been an enthusiastic supporter of the regime, but both Kennedy and Johnson had limited arms sales and economic assistance to Iran on the grounds that the Shah was a reactionary dictator who could not be trusted. Nixon and Kissinger, however, returned to the Eisenhower policy, and indeed expanded it. In their view, Iran was America’s best friend in the Middle East, a principal partner in the policy of containing the Soviets and the only reliable supplier of oil to the West. The Shah was a prime customer for America’s military hardware during the early seventies, purchasing up to one third of all arms sold by the United States abroad, and thus was a major factor in solving America’s balance-of-payments problems. He was also a staunch foe of Communism, and Iran’s geographical position on Russia’s southern border made it a strategically crucial nation. The Shah was a voice of moderation in OPEC. In addition, the Shah allowed the Americans to station sophisticated electronic listening devices along Iran’s border with the Soviet Union.
Iran was much more clearly an American vital interest than South Vietnam or South Korea had ever been. On his frequent trips to the United States, the Shah was given royal receptions. Tens of thousands of young Iranians came to the United States to study; Iranian military officers were trained at the various American war colleges; SAVAK, the notorious Iranian secret police force, received its training and equipment from the CIA; American oil companies provided the Iranians with technicians, financing, and general guidance, while sharing in the huge profits; and thousands of American businessmen operated in Teheran. Relations between the United States and Iran, in short, could not have been closer or better.
Or so it seemed. But in fact, except among the ruling elite in Iran, anti-American feeling was strong and growing. Iranians blamed the United States for putting the Shah back in power in 1953, and keeping him there afterward. They believed that the United States encouraged the Shah as he increasingly gathered all power in Iran into his own hands; they felt that the United States was responsible for the Shah’s enormous expenditures on the armed forces, expenditures that were out of all proportion to Iran’s security needs and were designed to protect the Shah’s position rather than improve the condition of the Iranian people. Countless Iranians believed that the United States was responsible for the Shah’s modernization programs, which in their view violated fundamental Islamic law and traditional Persian customs. But because the Americans got their information about Iran from the Shah, SAVAK, the Iranian military, and the oil companies, the seething unrest among the Iranian masses was either unknown, ignored, or dismissed.
Carter, despite his human rights policy, accepted the Nixon-Kissinger thesis that the Shah was a bulwark of American interests in the Middle East, and he continued the practice of selling the Shah military equipment at a record pace. (American arms sales to Iran, which had totaled $1.2 billion over the twenty-two years since 1950, increased almost sixteen-fold to a total of $19.5 billion from 1972 to 1979.) At the end of 1977, his first year in office, Carter went to Iran, where he was the guest of honor at a glittering dinner on New Year’s Eve. The President proposed a toast: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Carter failed to mention the massive anti-Shah demonstrations that had occurred that day in Teheran and which had led to hundreds of arrests. The CIA was equally myopic. In August 1978, by which time strikes and demonstrations had virtually paralyzed Iran, the CIA issued a sixty-page analysis of “Iran in the 1980s,” in which it concluded, “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘prerevolutionary’ situation.”
But by this stage Iran in fact was full of revolutionary activity. The Shah was under attack from both the left (the Fedayeen, which was closely connected to the PLO) and the right (the Mullahs, or Islamic clergy, who were demanding an Islamic republic and a retreat from modernization). The CIA failed to see the seriousness of the challenge or understand the depth of Iranian hatred for the Shah, even though it had more agents in Iran, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. American intelligence also failed to uncover a crucial fact: The Shah had an incurable cancer and was being treated with massive doses of drugs by French doctors. His will was shattered; he was indecisive at critical moments; he had no stomach for turning his magnificently equipped army, or his secret police, against the rioters, who consequently grew increasingly bolder. But neither Carter nor the CIA could believe that an absolute monarch, in command of a wealthy oil-producing nation, with huge armed forces and secret police giving him their enthusiastic support, could be overthrown by unarmed mobs led by bearded Mullahs. Indeed, so contemptuous was Carter of the Shah’s political opponents that he made no attempt to open lines of communication with them. It was a momentous miscalculation.
By mid-1978, a single leader of the Iranian opposition had emerged. He was the Ayatollah Khomeini, an aged fanatic who was living in exile in Paris, from which place he sent instructions and exhortations to his followers in Iran. His message was to strike, disrupt, riot, and create chaos until the Shah was forced to abdicate. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians did as he instructed; soon Iran was not producing enough oil even for its own internal needs, and the country was indeed in chaos. The Iranian army, forbidden by the Shah to fire on the rioters (the Shah feared that a bloodbath would ruin his son’s chances of succeeding him), was demoralized. Finally, on January 16, 1979, the Shah left the country for an extended “vacation.” Two weeks later, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, where crowds of supporters, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, greeted him with wild enthusiasm. Although Khomeini never took a formal position in the government, he immediately became the de facto ruler of Iran.
The Carter administration hardly knew what to make of the Ayatollah. Accustomed, like its predecessors, to thinking exclusively in terms of the Cold War, it was unable to adjust to a fundamentalist religious revolution that denounced the United States and the Soviet Union equally. Discounting the Ayatollah’s rabid hatred of Communism, Carter tended to hear only Khomeini’s vicious assaults on the United States which he called “the great Satan.” Thus Carter’s fear was that Khomeini would allow a Soviet penetration of Iran. This was seen as a possible first step in a Soviet penetration of the entire Middle East, with incalculable consequences for the entire Western world. Once again, in other words, Carter was seeing dangers that did not exist, while ignoring those that did.
What the United States government never fully recognized was that the cement holding the otherwise incompatible Fedayeen and Mullahs together was anti-Americanism and hatred of the Shah. The two sentiments merged into one because the Shah had not abdicated (he went first to Morocco, then to the Bahamas), because the United States continued to maintain a large diplomatic corps and business community in Iran, and because Iranians still blamed the United States for the events of 1953. It was almost universally believed in Iran that the CIA would attempt a repeat performance. In fact, Carter had no intention of trying to restore the Shah, as indicated by his recognition in February 1979 of the new Islamic government. Carter’s hope was instead to restore normal relations with Iran and make it, once again, a pillar of stability in the Middle East. The Iranians, however, could not believe that the United States would abandon the Shah, and so long as he was alive they anticipated another CIA coup.
In July 1979, the Shah’s sixty-day visa in the Bahamas expired. The Carter administration, after many aborted talks with a number of countries, finally persuaded the Mexican government to grant him a six-month tourist visa. Meanwhile, however, Carter was under intense pressure from David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, and other old friends of the Shah to admit the Shah to the United States. Kissinger said it was disgraceful that the United States had turned its back on one of her oldest and closest friends. Carter resisted this pressure, but he was moved ultimately by humanitarian motives, the most important being the argument that the Shah could receive proper medical treatment for his cancer only in a New York hospital. Carter agreed to allow the Shah to come to the United States for treatment. The Shah entered the United States in late October 1979; the Carter administration had taken the precaution of obtaining assurances from the Iranian government beforehand that it could protect the American embassy in Teheran. How Carter could have believed these assurances is somewhat of a mystery; it seemed obvious to most observers that allowing the Shah into the United States would have the effect of waving a red flag in front of an already fever-pitched bull.
On November 4, 1979, enraged Iranian “students” overran the United States embassy in Teheran and took some 100 hostages. The Ayatollah Khomeini condoned the takeover, saying that “if they do not give up the criminal then we shall do whatever is necessary.” It was an outrageous action, the worst violation of the basic principle of diplomatic immunity in modern history. Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, head of a “government” that existed only at the sufferance of Khomeini, tried to secure the release of the hostages, failed, and resigned. Carter ordered the Pentagon to prepare a contingency plan for military action to rescue the hostages. He also told Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti to inform the fifty thousand Iranian students in the United States to report to the nearest immigration office. Any student found to be in violation of the terms of his or her visa was to be deported. (Little came of this threat, as American courts consistently upheld the rights of the students.) Carter suspended arms sales to Iran, froze Iranian assets in American banks, and announced an embargo on Iranian oil. As Iran no longer wanted American arms anyway, and was not even producing enough oil for her own needs, these actions had no immediate effect.
More important than his actions were Carter’s public statements, which had the effect of enormously enhancing the value of the hostages to the Iranians. By word and deed, the President made it clear to the Iranians and the world that the lives of the hostages were his first priority. He met repeatedly with the families of the hostages and prayed publicly with them at the National Cathedral; he confessed to reporters that virtually his every waking moment was spent worrying about the fate of the captives; to the great frustration of Senator Edward Kennedy, Carter refused to participate in the preconvention political campaigning for the Democratic nomination on the grounds that he needed to devote his full time to the hostage crisis, which helped Carter in his contest with Kennedy but later hurt him badly in the general election; he allowed the hostage crisis to dominate American foreign policy for the next fourteen and a half months. At the time, few questioned his priorities, although probably no other nation in the world would have put the fate of the fifty-three hostages (Khomeini had ordered the release of most black and female hostages) ahead of all other considerations. The media, by giving the crisis an extremely high level of coverage, including nightly TV “specials” on the situation, added to the emotional response of the American people, and Carter’s popularity soared every time television showed huge mobs of crazed Iranians in Teheran crying “Death to Carter.” Carter’s choices—to allow the Shah to remain in an American hospital, to continue recognition of the Iranian “government,” to put mild economic pressure on Iran, and to attempt to negotiate a solution—originally won wide support.
Negotiations, however, required a stable government in Iran, one that was really in power, and such a government did not exist. The Iranians were in a revolutionary situation, attempting to draw up a new, basic Islamic constitution; meanwhile there were a series of Prime Ministers, none of whom could stay in office a day without Khomeini’s blessing. As a consequence, not until February 1980 did the United States have a list of Iranian demands to consider. As announced by the newly elected President of Iran, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the conditions were the return of the Shah to Iran for trial, the return of the Shah’s wealth to the Iranian people, an admission of guilt by the United States for its past actions in Iran, plus an apology, and a promise not to interfere in Iran’s affairs in the future. These were clearly unacceptable demands, especially the first one, as the Shah had already (in December 1979) left the United States to take up residence in Panama. In response to Bani-Sadr’s demands, Carter threatened harsh new sanctions against Iran and against Iranian citizens in the United States unless some progress was forthcoming. In March 1980, the Shah left Panama, one day before Iran was to present formal extradition papers, and accepted a longstanding offer of safe haven from President Sadat of Egypt. With the Shah now in an Islamic country and with Bani-Sadr promising an early release of the hostages, Carter’s spirits soared.
But Carter’s elation was short-lived. Bani-Sadr stalled, then ruefully admitted that he did not have the power to effect the release of the hostages, and Khomeini’s demands were unchanged. Carter was furious at this double-cross. On April 7 he announced the severing of diplomatic relations with Iran, the implementation of a complete economic embargo against Iran, an inventory of financial claims against Iran to be paid from Iranian assets in the United States, and told Iran’s diplomats to be out of the country within twenty-four hours.
Carter also gave a go-ahead for a military attempt to rescue the hostages. The military operation, on April 25, 1980, was poorly planned and badly executed. Long before any of the American helicopters got anywhere near the hostages, Carter had to cancel the operation because of equipment failure. The botched operation made the United States appear to be a “pitiful helpless giant” and Carter more of a waffler than ever. Hard-liners condemned him for not having mounted a rescue operation sooner, not putting enough military force into it when he decided to go, and then backing down at the first sign of difficulty. From the wait-and-negotiate camp, Secretary of State Vance resigned his post in protest. Vance believed the attempted rescue, even if successful, would inevitably lead to the shooting of many of the hostages, would deepen the chasm between the United States and Iran, and might lead the Soviets to intervene, with dangerous consequences for American policy in the Middle East. In short, whether seen from the left or the right, Carter’s abortive rescue mission was a disaster.
The President was widely perceived, by this time, as having gone from blunder to blunder. In an admittedly difficult situation, his decisions had been consistently wrong—his failure to support the Shah when the revolution began, his failure to open lines of communication with Khomeini, his recognition of a government in Iran that could not govern, his decision to allow the Shah into the United States, his highly emotional response to the taking of the hostages, his long-delayed and then botched use of the military rescue option. Carter’s standing in the polls declined sharply.
An impasse in the hostage crisis had been reached, to continue through the summer of 1980. On July 27, the sixty-year-old Shah died of cancer, but any hope that his death would improve the hostage situation was soon dashed. In September, Khomeini stated four conditions for the release of the hostages: The United States must (1) return the Shah’s wealth; (2) cancel all financial claims against Iran; (3) free Iranian assets frozen in the United States; and (4) promise never to interfere in Iranian affairs. Since the Iranian demand for an apology from the United States for its past behavior was not mentioned, there was now at least a basis for talk. Chances for a settlement also improved after September 22, when Iraq invaded Iran’s Khuzistan Province and full-scale war began between the two countries.
The possibility of the dismemberment of Iran was highly disturbing to the United States, because the Soviets would be sure to take advantage of it, so in October Carter announced that he would release Iran’s assets, end economic sanctions, and normalize relations if Iran would release the hostages. On November 4, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the presidential election, thereby putting additional pressure on Khomeini. In public Reagan was denouncing the Iranians as “barbarians” and “common criminals” and hinting that he would take strong and direct military action against them. Actually, Reagan had made a private deal with Khomeini. If the Iranians would hold the hostages until after the election, the new Reagan administration would pay ransom for them in the form of arms for Iran. Khomeini badly needed the weapons for his war with Iraq, so the deal was struck.
After the election, but before Reagan’s inauguration, Khomeini tried to make a separate deal with Carter. On December 21, Iran demanded a specific ransom for the captives—$24 billion—deposited in Algeria. The new Secretary of State, Edmund Muskie, said the demand was “unreasonable” but indicated that it formed a basis for negotiations. On January 6, Iran reduced the demand to $20 billion, and a week later made another reduction, to $8 billion. Complex negotiations followed, in an atmosphere of haste, as Reagan would take office on January 20. Finally, on Carter’s last morning in office, the Iranians agreed to a deal that gave them $8 billion worth of Iranian assets that had been frozen (but $5 billion was set aside to pay off Iran’s debts to American and European banks) in return for the release of the hostages, who flew out of Teheran that day. The crisis was finally over.
Except for the return of its assets, Iran got nothing from the episode—no apology, no international tribunal to hear Teheran’s grievances against the United States, no promises about the future, no return of the Shah’s wealth. The outcome was nevertheless hardly a triumph for the United States, which had been humiliated for more than fourteen months and shown to be impotent even in defending its vital interests. Khomeini was left with a bankrupt and divided country that was involved in a dangerous and expensive war with Iraq. Carter suffered the worse electoral defeat of any incumbent President ever, including Herbert Hoover in 1932. The only real winner was Reagan, whose huge margin of victory was due in no small part to Carter’s inept handling of the crisis. Indeed, most observers felt that had Carter secured the release of the hostages before the election, he might well have won; Ronald Reagan certainly thought so, which was why he made the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. Nearly everyone agreed that had the military rescue worked, Carter would have been triumphantly returned for a second term.