The Washington Post:

Arash Azizi is a writer and a PhD candidate of history and Middle Eastern studies at New York University (NYU). 

The specter of history looms large over the contentious relationship between Iran and the United States. As the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 just passed its 40th anniversary, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple has waded into the topic with “Desert One,” a documentary on the botched U.S. operation to rescue the hostages, which is having its New York premiere this week at the Doc NYC festival.

The film features interviews with Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, then-CIA official Robert Gates, some of the 52 hostages and many of the soldiers who survived the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw — and the families of the eight men who didn’t. On the Iranian side, there are two crucial interviews, one with Faeze Moslehi, a female hostage-taker, and the other with a passerby who, as a child, happened to be traveling on the desert road where the American helicopters landed to start their ill-fated operation.

By using oral histories from both sides of the conflict, Kopple sheds light on the deep resentments that undergirded the crisis. In its presentation of Iranian history, in particular, the film reveals how the hostage crisis was far from the triumphant defeat of America that Iran likes to claim it was. It helped solidify the authoritarian tendencies of the nascent Islamic Republic and plagued its diplomatic relations with the West from the outset.

Kopple’s film shows how the hostage crisis sits at the intersection of so many grand historical processes: The Iranian revolution of 1979, the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the rise of Ronald Reagan, the pioneering use of Special Operations forces (Eagle Claw was the first U.S. Army Delta Force operation) and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle with far-reaching consequences for democratic politics.

Its portrayal of the Carter administration is hard-hitting. Never-before-released telephone records and interviews with Carter’s advisers show a commander in chief who was tactically inept. He struggled to find balance between his noninterventionist instincts and a difficult reality in Iran. The film argues that by giving a public promise early on to never use military force (as opposed to the now familiar “all options on the table” that even President Barack Obama repeated at the height of diplomatic negotiations with Tehran), Carter effectively incentivized the Iranians to keep the hostages.

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