By Assal Rad, Newsweek: November 4, 1979, defined how an entire generation of Americans viewed Iran. Forty years later, images of Iranian students breaching the U.S. Embassy walls and taking Americans hostage in Tehran continue to frame American sensibilities on Iran through U.S. foreign policy. In fact, the hostage crisis was such a consequential moment for the United States that it seeped into American popular culture, as a constant reminder of Iran's transgression.
I was born in the United States after the hostage crisis, to Iranian parents, and was not old enough to experience its tumult first-hand. However, as an American adolescent years after the crisis had come and gone, I saw how those scars materialized in a game of Taboo with friends. The rules of Taboo are simple: have your team guess the word at the top of a card by describing it without using the associated words listed on the card. On my turn, I flipped the card, which read "hostage" in pink, and was stunned when I saw "Iran" listed as one of the taboo words. It took me a moment to make the connection, but I realized the implications resulted from that fateful day in November 1979.
Without question, taking hostages, especially people who work at an embassy, is a deplorable act, as is overthrowing a sovereign nation's government and installing a dictator. Of course, I am referring to the role of the United States in Iran's 1953 coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and reinstated an authoritarian king. While the legacy of the hostage crisis still colors American views of Iran, the legacy of the coup does the same for Iranians. Moreover, the overthrow itself played a direct hand in the events of November 1979, especially since the coup was launched from the U.S. Embassy 26 years earlier. Understanding these connections and the context of the hostage crisis may not erase old wounds, but it may help us to move forward and institute more prudent policies.
A Second Coup?
The role of the CIA in Iran's 1953 coup has been well documented, but the significance of the coup goes beyond U.S.-Iran relations. In many ways, the lesson of 1953 for U.S. policy makers was that unfavorable foreign governments could simply be replaced with dictators more palatable to American interests. As such, 1953 was used as a model to carry out similar CIA led coups in other countries—for instance, in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973). The efficacy of these policies are questionable at best and have led to blowback in many cases.
The coup in Iran and the ensuing crackdown by the Shah were one factor among many complex reasons that facilitated the Iranian people's revolutionary movement. By 1979, when the revolution had successfully toppled the monarchy, the role of the U.S. in the coup was well-known among Iranians. Although the Shah continued to portray the coup as a people's revolution against Mossadegh, he wrote in his Answer to History after the revolution, "I had already made contingency plans with the help of my American friends, who in those days included Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA."
Given the history of U.S. interventions and Iran's experience of the coup, it comes as no surprise that in late 1979, when the Shah was admitted into the United States for medical treatment, Iranians feared a repeat of 1953. Again, the Shah himself was cognizant of the connection, and noted in Answer to History that the embassy in Iran was taken just two weeks after he entered the United States.
It is crucial to our understanding of today's climate to know the context of those events, although in no way does it excuse the actions of the Iranian students who seized the embassy and its staff. Seen through Iranians' eyes as an act of independence, the embassy takeover was meant to prevent what they believed was a likely occurrence: a second coup that would again install the Shah. Preeminent historian of modern Iran Ervand Abrahamian aptly posits in his study of the 1953 coup that "much of the public was convinced that the CIA was capable and willing to do so. Thus began the famous 444-day American hostage crisis. Americans who knew little of the events of 1953 were mystified; Iranians were not."
40 Years of Distrust
Since the revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic has used the specter of the coup as but one reminder of the injustices imposed upon the country by the United States, in much the same way the U.S. uses the hostage crisis to inform American views of Iran. Prior to 1953, Iranians saw the U.S. as a symbol of freedom, and their animosity was reserved for Britain and Russia for their respective colonial encroachment over Iran. After 1953, however, Iranians have understandably had difficulty trusting U.S. officials, though their view of American people remains positive.
Despite this tragic history, Iranians and Americans took a chance again with the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, President Donald Trump's decision to abrogate the agreement showed Iranians once again why the United States could not be trusted. The deal represented many things: a standard for successful international cooperation, a model for nuclear non-proliferation and an example of how negotiations can work even between adversaries.
But for Iranians and Americans, it was an opportunity to shed the mutual baggage of the past and forge a new relationship that looked to the future. These may sound like lofty dreams, or the hopes of an Iranian-American bound inextricably to the entangled history of these two countries, but I wonder how a game of Taboo would play today if I flipped the card for "diplomacy." There is still hope for concord and peace as long as we acknowledge mutual grievances, return to a path of compromise and remember that the choice between diplomacy and enmity is ours.
First published in Newsweek.
Assal Rad is a research fellow at the National Iranian American Council. She received her Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Irvine. Follow her on Twitter @assalrad.