A hint of hope at the embassy siege

David North November 26 1979

A hint of hope at the embassy siege

David North November 26 1979

A hint of hope at the embassy siege


David North

The tone was defiant rather than conciliatory. But Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s order for the release of black and women hostages was widely welcomed on Saturday as the first sign of fatigue in the iron will which had kept about 80 staff—59 of them Americans—bottled up by students in the U.S. embassy in Tehran for 14 days in an attempt to force the United States to hand over the exiled shah for trial. The freed hostages, about 10 in all, were to be escorted to freedom and eventual deportation by the ayatollah’s son Hojatoleslam Haj Ahmad Khomeini, possibly to West Germany, on the grounds that women enjoyed special privileges under Islam and blacks were oppressed in the United States. But there was to be no respite for the remaining prisoners, at any rate for the time being.

The limited breakthrough came at the end of a week in which the two countries and their leaders traded insults— “An act of terrorism,” said President Jimmy Carter. “They rob and freeze our money just like thieves,” riposted Khomeini—and economic injuries. But

while public tension continued high in the United States, task force officials in Washington were privately establishing a rapport by telephone with students in the Tehran embassy and, despite the bluster, signs multiplied that the situation was improving. The Americans were able to pass on personal messages from the captives’ relatives and the students also agreed to accept mail for their charges. The hostages asked for books, and a carton of them was delivered. Among the titles: David Niven’s autobiography The Moon ’s a Balloon.

That lighthearted note underlined the contrast between the hostility of Americans to Iranians in the United States and the relaxed attitude of Iranians toward Americans and other foreigners in Tehran. While the motley groups of demonstrators—drivers in a fleet of orange taxis, cement workers, a group of wounded soldiers from Kurdistan still in their hospital pyjamas—and banners multiplied, revolutionary guards chatted with reporters and street vendors did a roaring trade in hot spiced beetroot among those citizens who had merely come to stare. America’s anger, however, meant that Carter would almost certainly have had to take tough action simply to satisfy public opinion, even if the Iranians had

done nothing provocative at all.

In the event, however, they did. On Monday, in a “You’re fired—I quit” move, Carter acted on reports that Iran was about to cut off oil supplies—about 800,000 barrels, four per cent of U.S. consumption—by announcing that imports from Iran would cease. “It is necessary to eliminate any suggestions the economic pressures can weaken our stand,” he told reporters.

The move was almost universally applauded—even by Carter’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Edward Kennedy, and by Republican hopeful Howard Baker and Democratic Senate stalwart Frank Church in particular. California Governor Jerry Brown, another hopeful, put into effect a plan to restore odd-even rationing in his state. But a few critics noted that if the move was intended as a punishment, it would backfire because they could sell the oil for a lot more on the spot market (by week’s end it was reported going for $45 a barrel against the current OPEC price of $23.50).

Hopes of an end to the crisis, then in its 10th day, were raised briefly on Tuesday when Iranian Foreign Minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, appeared to hint that demands that the shah be extradited might be relaxed and the hostages might be released if the U.S. were to acknowledge his guilt and return his assets, rumored to total $20 billion. But the students at the U.S. Embassy were less accommodating and a new twist in the tit-for-tat game between Tehran and Washington next day raised the temperature still higher.

The trigger was an Iranian decision to transfer $12 billion (the U.S. says there is only $6 billion) from U.S. banks to the banks of states friendly to Iran. After an urgent predawn meeting of U.S. Treasury officials and a 5:45 a.m. call from Secretary William Miller to Carter, the president signed an order “blocking” Iranian government assets in the U.S. The Iranians claimed the move amounted to economic war and pressed a demand for a UN Security

Council meeting but, in the face of stiff opposition from U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, that was rebuffed.

Other, less-publicized moves were being made. “Operation Dragon Team 11,” officially described as a quick-reflex military exercise by 2,700 troops (including the crack 101st Air Assault Division, which is designated to deal with overseas crises) got under way at Fort Hood, Texas. The defence department announced that the aircraft carrier Midway and nine other ships would engage in naval exercises with Britain and Australia in the Arabian Sea, on which Iran has a coastline. The moves probably had something to do with an Iranian charge, swiftly denied, that the U.S. had airlifted paratroops to the Persian Gulf in preparation for an attempt to free hostages. The administration also disclaimed any intention to cut shipments of the $450 million worth of food and animal feed that the U.S. sells Iran each year.

The shah, meanwhile, continued his treatments for his neck tumor in New York under heavy guard. A spokesman reported that he was whisked from his hospital room down an underground tunnel to a neighboring facility. But there were conflicting reports about his health. While administration sources were saying that it was getting worse, other reports said he might be ready to leave in about a week and Mexican authorities indicated that he could have his tourist visa back if he wanted to return there.

One point concerning the shah’s visit was cleared up, however. Captured U.S. documents and admissions from White House aides last week made clear that the Iranians had warned from the start that the shah’s admission to the U.S. could lead to “undesirable consequences.” The Carter administration, however, had chosen to ignore those danger signals, under pressure from former secretary of state Henry Kissin-

ger, David Rockefeller and others. Carter had to admit the shah for medical treatment or suffer political consequences at home, aides said.

There was another flurry of hope, on Thursday, when Bani-Sadr was reported to have said that all hostages except white American males would be freed “very soon.” But students at the embassy dismissed the idea and optimism faded when it was revealed that a tired Khomeini (he is 79), who had been in seclusion all week, would not be back in public life until early December.

Then came Saturday’s surprise announcement. But while the news was swiftly welcomed at the White House, Carter also reiterated calls for the release of the remaining hostages—and that seemed as far away as ever. The fact was that the Tehran students, along with most of their countrymen, simply did not believe the shah was sick. They continued to cite documents found at the embassy, and considered authentic by non-American diplomats who saw them, which suggested the U.S. had long been planning to admit to shelter its former friend and ally.

With files from Ian Mather in Tehran and Catherine Fox in Washington.

Ian Mather